If you want to understand Italian neorealism, the desperation of poverty, or simply the power of cinema, you have to see Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief (AKA Bicycle Thieves or Ladri di biciclette). You’ll find it deservedly on any short list of great motion pictures.
This film pits the desperately poor against the desperately poor, in a story that you know, deep down in your bones, can’t possibly end well. And yet, there are many touches of beauty, human kindness, and humor. It also has a young Enzo Staiola in what is probably the most adorable little kid role in the history of movies. Staiola’s Bruno, a practical but adoring boy still at the age of father worship, provides most of the humor, as well as the story’s heart. The protagonist, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) sacrifices so much not for his own benefit, but for his family–especially his young son.
I first saw The Bicycle Thief, in 16mm, in a college class in 1972. I instantly fell in love with it. And yet, I didn’t get around to seeing it again for many years. I next saw it, in 35mm, at the UC Theatre of blessed memory. That was probably in the 1980s, although I’m not sure. I revisited it again last Saturday night, streaming off of Netflix.
Let’s get the multiple versions of the title out of the way. The film was originally released in its native Italy as Ladri di biciclette. According to both Google’s translation tool and Wikipedia, that translates into Bicycle Thieves (or at least bike thieves). But when it opened in America, it was called The Bicycle Thief. Today, Netflix uses the singular title; Criterion the plural one. Both seem appropriate, but I stick with The Bicycle Thief because that’s the title I first knew, and the one on every version I’ve seen..
As the film begins, the unemployed Antonio, desperate to feed his family, finally gets a job–in part because he owns a bike, although his wife has to hock their bed sheets to get it out of hock. Then, on his first day on the job, his bike is stolen. Most of the film follows Antonio and Bruno in a desperate search through Rome, hoping against hope to find the bike.
(Why would a grown man take his young son on such a quest? Officially, it’s because Bruno did the bike-repair chores, and therefore knows it better than anyone. The real reason, of course, is that Bruno adds to the drama while providing adorableness and comic relief.)
Neither Maggiorani nor Staiola were professional actors. That was the point of neorealism. As much as possible, the short-lived style used real people in real locations to capture realistic stories of desperate poverty.
De Sica makes sure you know that Antonio’s poverty is the norm, not an exception. Even the thief, when you get to know him, is desperate and did what he had to do.
Despite (or perhaps because of) their lack of experience, both Maggiorani and Staiola display considerable acting talent and star charisma. Both had modest movie careers after this film. Unfortunately, at certain angles, Maggiorani reminded me of a dark-haired Dick Cavett, but since Cavett was a kid when the film was made, I can’t blame that on the actor or the director.
This is a sad, heart-breaking story, relieved only by the love of family–even if it’s the family that is in crisis. I definitely give it an A+.