Bicycle Thieves is truly one of my favorite films. I could watch it over and over again, and in truth, I have. It’s a complicated and eloquent story in spite of its simple plot. The first time I saw Bicycle Thieves was in a class on neorealism, and I was immediately struck by how seamless and real it was, as if a camera were fortunate enough to be present in capturing an actual event. Bicycle Thieves gives meaning to the common man. And, as is often the case in life, reality here doesn’t have a happy resolution. It was the same where I grew up: life was basically a continuous struggle. You endure, as William Faulkner points out. The people from the housing projects near where I used to live had a lot in common with those in Bicycle Thieves. In trying to find answers to what I experienced, I read a lot of Depression-era literature and studied the works of the photojournalists who focused on families struggling to make ends meet—slave narratives and books like Richard Wright’s Native Son and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which share the sensibility that produced neorealism. To tell a story without imposing your values is very challenging.
There is a group of filmmakers like myself who wanted to counter the distorted narratives and stereotyped images of Hollywood, and on seeing Bicycle Thieves, I was moved by how ordinary people were able to express so much humanity. The story achieved in very simple terms what I was looking to do in film: humanize those watching. Bicycle Thieves has the quality and intention of a documentary. It is totally unromantic. The characters are just ordinary people, and the film gives the impression you are watching life unfold before you. It is entertaining, but that is not the goal. Its goal is to make audiences aware of a particular social condition that needs a political solution. It is clear that it was made as a tool for change.
Also amazing is the fact that the thieves are not portrayed as bad people but as victims of a corrupt society. It is postwar Italy, just freed from a Fascist government that had controlled information and lied to its people. When Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) forces the young man who stole his bike to take him to his house, all of the thief’s neighbors come out to give him support. His partner comes out of his rundown apartment holding a baby when he hears the commotion. When he sees Antonio, he escapes back into his apartment. You find a kind of Lower Depths, but in spite of their poverty, they have grace.
The predators are the rich and disconnected. De Sica’s commentary is fascinating. The theft of the bike ironically unveils the layers of corruption at all levels of postwar Italy, but especially in the upper classes. You see a well-dressed, self-indulgent young man blowing bubbles and totally oblivious to Antonio’s suffering as he and his friend conduct their search through vendors selling bikes and parts. In the same scene, De Sica shows a well-dressed pedophile trying to seduce Antonio’s son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola); no one seems to be concerned about the pedophile, as if it is all too common. Even the church is not a sanctuary. Class struggle is clearly a concern of De Sica’s.
The most significant insight I gained from Bicycle Thieves is that stories don’t have to be complicated. Something small can start a whole landslide of emotions. I find myself still full of admiration after seeing Bicycle Thieves recently. The film is beautifully shot. The black-and-white photography and full aperture give it a classical look. The compositions are extraordinary; there are poetic moments throughout. One always grabs me: early in the film, when Antonio rides Bruno to work on his bicycle. There are a lot of other bicyclists going to work in the early morning light. They ride in a pack, keeping ahead of a bus that is full of workers. There is a lovely score over the scene that turns it into poetry. Perhaps the only self-conscious touch of De Sica’s is the scene in which Antonio’s bike is stolen, while he is hanging a poster of Rita Hayworth. I have always wondered what the meaning of this was, if there was any. The poster is of a Hollywood star. Is everything about the film a reaction to phoniness?
I have yet to watch the last act of the film without experiencing the same emotion I felt the first time. The humiliation Antonio suffers after he is caught trying to steal a bike, in front of his son, is literally painful to watch. I dread that moment, because I feel for how much he, and his son, have to bear.
The main actors in the film are ideal. Their faces are so expressive. They seem to be playing themselves. The background players’ faces are also always incredibly expressive, which adds to the illusion of reality. An elderly man comes up to the pawnbroker’s window after Maria Ricci has dropped off her wedding sheets; the elderly man offers a pair of useless binoculars. His face tells a story. Each character has grace, except for those who feed on the poor.
When Lianella Carell, who plays Maria, is on the screen, she adds little touches to her character that ring so true. In the pawnshop scene, as she watches the pawnbroker count her money, she bites her fingernail. That little gesture comes across as being so real and endearing. Following that scene is one in which her husband, Antonio, lifts her up to look into a window of the building where he now works. Just as she is about to peek in, someone inside closes the window in her face. Her look of disappointment is powerfully affecting. I often wonder if that was De Sica or her.
The other principal actors, Maggiorani and Staiola, avoid being sentimental even though it is a sad story. Maggiorani doesn’t have Hollywood movie star looks, but you believe him. Bruno is maybe eight, but mature for his age. There is a lovely scene where he cleans his father’s bike with just enough light to see. He opens the window that is over his sleeping baby sibling so he can see better. Just as Bruno leaves, he looks over at the baby and goes back to close the window. It is one of many human moments in this beautiful film.
Filmmaker Charles Burnett’s works include the acclaimed Killer of Sheep (1977), which he made as his UCLA thesis and was among the first works chosen for inclusion in the Library of Congress’s Historic Film Registry; To Sleep with Anger (1990); and Nightjohn (1996). He is the recipient of Guggenheim and MacArthur foundation fellowships.