THE BICYCLE THIEF (1948)

The hallmark of the Italian neorealism genre is to take the ordinary and evoke feelings to believe in the meaning of our lives as they are, rather than create belief in our fantasized endings to stories.  The film offers a poignant example of the every day sacredness that Fr Dennis so often tried to share with us in film and poetry. 

The film director, Vittorio DeSica, once again went with “real” people, rather than actors — in fact, one potential funder wanted Cary Grant to play the lead character, the father/husband, Antonio Ricci.  Instead, a working man and a newspaper boy from the Rome streets, both amateurs, were cast as the father-son combination to great effect.  The actor who played the wife/mom worked in the arts, though she also acted in three films total. The young boy grew up to be a math teacher!

You may recall in 2014, we watched Fellini’s LA STRADA (1954), which broke from the strict social reality foundation of Italian neorealism.  THE BICYCLE THIEF was filmed and released in 1948, closer to the consequences of WWII and hews more tightly to the characteristics of the genre.  Fellini’s creativity tended to cross, blend, and defy genres.

I’ll offer my thoughts below on some of my favorite or standout moments of Eucharist, reconciliation, and more couched in the everyday affairs of a struggling Italian family.

12 thoughts on “THE BICYCLE THIEF (1948)

  1. I wanted to come up with a theme for The Bicycle Thief. Note: in Italian it’s Bicycle Thieves, and some are wanting to use the actual translation. Makes sense because once you’ve watched the movie there are two thieves.

    As Rainey summarizes, this has been a standout and breakout film since it showed in 1948. Why?

    The trove of Roman street life, close camera shots of hundreds of people, careful scrutiny of their subtle mannerisms. I don’t think this is present in many movies. There is a ton to take in.

    I found the theme I was looking for which is people caring deeply for others, as second nature.

    The main characters are the father Antonio and his eight year old Bruno. It starts with a friend of Antonio yelling for him to come over to the group waiting to hear about a job offer. So, help coming from probably a casual acquaintance, to a group led by an agency trying to help fellows needing jobs. DeSica pans the small crowd of job-seekers touchingly.

    His wife helps him get his bike back from the pawn shop.

    His boy-beyond-his-years lovingly and steadfastly stays by his side the entire film.

    When the bike is stolen strangers come to his aid to pursue the thief. Antonio goes to a friend to enlist his help which he unquestioningly does. The police are always there to help the best they can.

    The church group in its mission to help those from a Rome neighborhood in need.

    When Antonio confronts the guy he recognizes as the thief, the fellow’s neighbors strongly come to HIS aid. (Antonio has no proof.)

    And when Antonio finally succumbs and steals a bike, the owner looks him over, sees Bruno too, and forgives, telling the crowd to let him go.

    People helping one another unflinchingly.

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  2. So much of the poignancy of this film occurs in silence or through setting.

    This viewing, the scale of the pawnshop warehouse struck me, as Antonio (the father) watches his wife’s dowry of bed linens to be taken 20 feet up to one shelf among many shelves filled with other people’s linens and belongings, all to get his still dented bicycle back. A moment of unspoken, unclarified emotion wells in Antonio’s eyes and eventually settles into optimistic resignation as he goes to reclaim his bicycle. (Okay .. and for this 21st century bicyclist – how Antonio transports his family on that bicycle is hard-going for rider and cyclist, especially on those roads!!)

    With so much of the film following the search for the bicycle, the character of the wife/mom and other women did not stand out as much, though there was much richness in those moments, too (particularly at the seer’s apartment).

    At the beginning of the film, there is a lot of eye “conversation,” exchanges of looks and smiles, physical contact, and spoken conversation. Over the course of the film, as Antonio follows his obsession to get the bike returned, he becomes less and less aware of his son. Antonio keeps following the loss, and Bruno keeps following his father.

    The two scenes that bookend this observation are the meal scene in the ristorante (“We are NOT a pizzeria!”) and the final scene. Antonio tenderly decides to use some of their limited money for a celebration of food to fortify their bodies and spirits. During the meal, the connection between Antonio’s and Bruno’s focus begins to part. They both gustily enjoy the food, and Antonio the wine. Antonio’s focus of the conversation is on the “what if’s” of life lost with the stolen bicycle; Bruno’s focus is on the table next to theirs and being with his beloved papá. The mix of cheesy bread, wine, the music, and the hope lead our hearts one way, but the desperation starting to creep in to the father’s tone and classism of the restaurant pull my heart the other way. Here’s another interesting take on the meal.

    (Of course, I don’t know enough Italian to make out what the singer is singing, or if that song added particular levels of meaning!) Anyone?

    As we approach the final scene, Bruno is obviously physically and emotionally exhausted, but Antonio is no longer seeing his beloved son, whom, at one level, he is supposedly doing this for. But all balance is lost. In one scene, Bruno almost gets hit by a truck, as he desperately tries to cross a street so not to lose sight of his papá. I could certainly empathize both with getting lost in the task and trying to stay close to the people we love.

    The final scene when Antonio can no longer bear the loss of his dreams and steals the bike leads to a brilliantly captured reconciliation. After his attempt to steal the bike, Antonio – facing the eagerness of the crowd to send him to prison realizes he was saved only by his son’s presence – continues the self-focus that has been growing ever since the meal. He walks in a brooding, isolating silence. Bruno’s idealization of his father has been trampled along with Antonio’s hat; he is wrung out physically and emotionally. After all that, Antonio receives reconciliation from his son and they walk together again, Bruno quietly placing his hand in his father’s, present to each other again.

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    1. You were able to mine so much detail Rainey. “Bruno’s idealization of his father has been trampled along with Antonio’s hat.” What an observation! More reason to understand this is a magnificently-crafted movie.

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    2. I agree with the comments made by Tom & Rainey. As already mentioned the most hopeful moment came at the end when the son and father walk hand in hand. Yes there were caring and loving moments scattered throughout the film but after such a fruitless search for the stolen bike this scene gave hope that they would somehow survive.
      The son was ever faithful following his father even when the father grew increasingly agressive. The father’s anger and desperation is understandable given the poverty after the war. He is responsible for feeding his family.
      I did like the mother’s response at the start when they needed to buy back the bicycle from the pawn shop. “We can sleep without sheets.” She was optimistic. When the sheets are pawned the shop operator gives them a little more than he first offered. Another case in Tom’s thesis of people helping people. The father watches carefully where their bed linen is stacked. As Rainey mentioned it is a towering stack of shelves indicating how many people were desperate to find money for food but it also signals that he intended to return and retrieve his wife’s dowry. He was now so hopeful because he had a job.
      It was absolutely amazing how many bikes must have been stolen as seen as they walked and searched through the markets.

      During my visits to small Italian towns in this new century, many men still meet at the coffee shop in the morning to see what day jobs were available. The cousin of our A2 friend had a state job for road construction or repair but that was not daily employment. He supplemented with these day jobs. His wife worked as a house cleaner in town. However, they did have a nice house and garden but they both worked very hard. They picked chestnuts in the fall to be marketed to the US.

      Maybe more later about the movie. One question: when the sister of the bike thief enters the upstairs apartment, what is she carrying?

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  3. There was an up to date story about the same thing in the NYT today about the high number of delivery people in Brooklyn who are struggling to support themselves and their families and are having their electric bikes stolen- . Bicycle Thieves. It is the same old story of people scratching about a living to support their families being victimized by others they do not know who have no concern for them. . I am sure I will not remember the details of this article for long. But I saw the Bicycle Thieves over 50 years ago in a screen arts class and will never forget some of the imagery – The father sitting on the curb taking a break from searching for his bike having bike after bike ride past his face as he sits there in despair.

    What makes the movie great is not the “stars” but the visual artistry of the director who for the most part used untrained actors to tell his tale through through visual art. Without words how often are we taken into the minds of the main characters as seeing the world through their eyes. Through their eyes we understand what they are thinking and feeling. Do we need words to feel and understand the emotions at the end as the father begins to shad tears and his son, walking with him looks up at him, understands, and takes his hand.

    Thank you Rainey for pointing out the charity shown by the stranger who had his bike stolen by the father but sees and connects with his son’s concern for him and mercifully does not have him prosecuted. The stranger’s neighbors had all come to his assistance in catching the father, just as the neighbors of the person the father identified as stealing his bike came to his assistance. We often forget the stranger who is not our known neighbor is in the same situation as ourselves. as Tom points out, the director captures the theme of caring for one another during hard times without ever speaking the words.

    Ii hope to watch the film again soon, 50 years has been a long time. Just as a note, I recently watched Nomadlands. it too is a visual piece of art. There are only two professional actors but the directors tells a beautiful story through her visual mastery.

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    1. Thanks, Kevin — As I mentioned in the email, I have the library DVD, the Criterion Collection restored 50th anniversary set. So you are welcome to stop by and pick it up for viewing. Just going for quick turnarounds in case anyone else wants to watch it! Thanks for making that connection between NOMADLANDS and BICYCLE THIEVES in the sparse use of professional actors. Both directors left their film endings open to hope and more of the same, a deft touch..

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  4. I was glad to find Bicycle Thieves on Kanopy.com so I could watch it twice with a few days in between. I enjoyed and appreciate the comments others have made.

    I’ll start with a comment about the film-making itself. I was very impressed with how the Director worked with ordinary people to be the actors – it was really extraordinary. Also, the overall flow of the film, the narrative structure, was perfect. That said, I’m not sure why some people say it is the one of the best films ever made — because it was one of the saddest films I have ever seen, and I have trouble seeing it any other way.

    For me, the film showed how poverty and exclusion could bring out the worst in otherwise good people.

    At the very beginning of the film, we see that Antonio has apparently been out of work for two years, and he has given up hope, until the posting job appears — for which he is clearly not very qualified. Life could get better for his family, but only if Maria agrees to pawn the last thing they have of value in order to redeem the one other thing they had of value, Antonio’s bicycle. Then the first bicycle thief takes the new hope away, and from then on, the story is how Antonio gets crushed, and his worst traits begins to emerge as he attempts the impossible task of recovering the bike. Clearly he is no saint, but under this pressure, he is unkind to his wife and son (who clearly adores him throughout), seeks help from an apparent mobster, threatens people — “I’ll kill you” he says more than once — disrupts a church service, squanders their last money to try to please his now upset son, gets violent with an innocent man with seizures, and doesn’t even have the decency to apologize to any of these people. Finally he becomes the second bicycle thief, falling all the way from trying to be a good husband and father, to being just another petty criminal. This is why “The Bicycle Thieves” is a good title – there are only two thefts in the movie, and there are only two thieves, the first successful, the second a complete failure.

    And although Antonio and his family have lots of company in poverty, throughout the story, we see plenty of people who are well off and scornful of those who are poor: The many automobiles cruising by, the officious church people who insist on church attendance before providing a grudging meal of pasta and potatoes, the snobbish people at the restaurant, the massive crowds attending the football match, who are all better dressed and who possess bikes galore. Why are so many people deprived while so many are well off? What did Antonio do to deserve this?

    There is a beautiful moment when Bruno unwittingly saves his father from jail, but this is the final crushing of Antonio – he failed to protect his son from witnessing how he has become another thief. “A fine example for your son,” says one of the men who caught him in the act. He has completely failed his family and himself – that’s why he cries as his walks home with his son.

    This was a bruising lesson that poverty and exclusion really hurt people in their souls.

    I was so disturbed that I did a bit of research on the post-war economy of Italy. It was completely destroyed by the war, but in a couple of years after the film was made, the Italian economy boomed thanks to the Marshall plan. So maybe Antonio and his family would have recovered if their story continued.

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    1. You have a terrific take on the movie David. So different than my seeing it as fellowship, with so many helping others. Perhaps that what make good art -the ability to view it with multiple outcomes.

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      1. Tom, I really like your take – I hadn’t seen that at all in my first viewing, but you are right – so many people were helping and looking out for each other! Even the group of men that caught Antonio at the end.

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    2. Agreeing with you both! The artistry of this film in capturing the richness of the fabric of life, with its harming and helping relationships, without a clear right/wrong narrative is compelling; and probably why this is a good movie but a tough movie. Thanks, David and Tom for the good thoughts.

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