Desperation. A theme found in an endless collection of stories and one that never lessens in it’s ability to impact us. The power of this theme comes from the consequences of desperation, specifically the dramatic loss of honor that seems so inevitably tied to it. It’s this universal emotion that allows Vittorio De Sica‘s Bicycle Thieves to remain so consistently effecting. The story is simple, and not at all burdened with multiple dilemmas. Just one: survive. Survive for family, survive for honor, just survive. Because this, more than anything else, is the point of existence.
Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is another gaunt face in the crowd of post-war Italy and one of those destitute souls who lines up every morning with the hope of gaining employment. It doesn’t matter what or where, these men have mouths to feed. When Antonio’s name is finally called and he’s offered a position as a poster hanger, a position which requires the ownership of a bike, Antonio and his wife choose to sell their bed sheets rather than pass on the opportunity. Getting this job should change everything for Antonio, and how readily he devotes himself to the work is heartbreaking. This is not a man with any ambition other than to do something. On his first morning of work Antonio’s bike is stolen suddenly and without warning, and for the remainder of the film he searches, with the help of his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola). Rome becomes a maze, with rows and rows of black and white bicycles and men who can’t be trusted. Father and son walk for what feels like days and the search is barren. Even when Antonio does find the thief a faceless legion of comrades jump to his defense and Antonio is forced to move on with nothing to show for his only real lead. As he and Bruno walk away from their search, truly and finally broken, they come upon the sight of hundreds and hundreds of bicycles left unattended. This is the most transcendent moment in the film, in which Antonio must look inward and determine if he can perpetrate the same crime that brought him to this lowest of places. To say simply that Antonio must decide whether or not to steal a bicycle does nothing to express the weight of his decision, which is massive. This moment expresses so beautifully the struggle of all men in hard situations. Men who must determine their own worth and look hard at the things they’re capable of doing. And not only that, but the pain that comes in seeing your own child recognize your vulnerability, your potential for wickedness, this is purely devastating. It’s a natural conclusion to a film that never promises a happy ending.
Lamberto Maggiorani wasn’t an actor. He was a factory worker discovered by De Sica for this film. The same is true for little Enzo Staiola, who was cast purely for his bouncing gait. De Sica felt so strongly about the purity of reality he chose not to cast actors, a decision few would disagree with years later. In the reality of this desperation the characters thrive and become universal. And Antonio Ricci is not a purely altruistic character. He can act selfishly, and his relationship with Bruno seems less father/son and more a misguided partnership, with Bruno the only scapegoat for Antonio’s misplaced frustration. These two make their way through De Sica’s battered story with the grace of professional actors, but for all the shattered hope required of Antonio and his son, the unaffected performance of two newcomers makes all the sense in the world.
And the world created by De Sica is claustrophobic and callous. No one is on the side of the Ricci family, and being their own advocates is a terribly hopeless venture. These streets go on for hours and the sneering faces seem endless, all betting on Antonio’s failure. What is remarkable is how thoroughly we buy into the desperation and accept it. If occasionally we remind ourselves that the cause of all this strife is just a bike, it doesn’t do anything to assuage the grief we feel at every wrong turn. De Sica has taken something mundane and made it catastrophic, which speaks so strongly to the times. We may be in a recession, but our fears aren’t of starvation, they’re of not having cable. For these people, in this time, destitution was authentic, and the torment over a stolen bike wasn’t a dramatization, but a severe reality.
While the simplicity of the story is mostly elegant, it can give way to some rather monotonous scenes. Often De Sica will approach a scene with the hope of building tension slowly and end up simply being repetitive, for example in the moment when Antonio finally tracks down his thief. The young man is surrounded by neighbors, all of whom vouch for his innocence, and Antonio’s only argument is more or less, “I know it was him!” The scene resonates immediately, because it becomes so quickly apparent that Antonio’s accusation will get him nowhere. But this continues for several minutes, and there’s no more depth to the exchange than “You did this!” and “No I didn’t!” The film contains an abundance of these exchanges, and after awhile they become less tense and more tedious.
Bicycle Thieves is one of those rare cases where I was lucky enough to view the film with absolutely no expectations. I knew the title (which incidentally, I had wrong. The Bicycle Thief is an Americanized version of the Italian Ladri di Biciclette which is in fact plural: Bicycle Thieves. An interesting discrepancy considering Antonio’s personal character arch.) as well as the film’s status as a “classic.” For all I knew the film could have been a lighthearted comedy. What makes this rare instance of having no expectation so special is that the film becomes a singular and self-contained experience. Because I haven’t seen a trailer, or read up on the plot, or even discussed the film with anyone, I form an opinion of this film that is stronger and truer for it’s purity. It’s an exciting moment and one that seems, in these days where we have on-set cell phone pictures and teaser trailers a year and a half before the film’s release, rarer and rarer. It makes me excited to watch more classic films; films from different eras with different sensibilities and different goals. Bicycle Thieves may not be the best film I ever see, but for me it will always retain the beauty of a moment when I experienced something entirely on my own terms.