October’s Classic film is probably the most well-known Italian Neo Realist title of that cinema trend. Ladri di Biciclette (De Sica, 1948) or Bicycle Thieves is sometimes mistranslated as The Bicycle Thief but, as Peter Bradshaw points out, the plural is crucial since there are two thieves in the film; one at the beginning and one at the end.
A true classic, Bicycle Thieves is many things: a touching father and son portrait, a historical document of post-war Italy and a social statement. All of which may sound turgid, but there is humour and a lightness of touch in this film that makes for a sophistication that grows with each viewing.
Father of two, Antonio Ricci, is unemployed on the outskirts of depressed, post-WWII Rome. At last he has the chance of a job hanging posters for Hollywood movies, but finds it is conditional on owning a bike. Ricci lies about owning one, then desperately pawns the family linen to buy a second-hand cycle. When it is stolen and the police prove useless Antonio and Bruno, his son, decide to spend their Sunday combing the ancient capital in search of the thief. The Joycean portrait of a city that follows has an unexpected conclusion.
The lyricism of Antonio and Bruno’s search of lost hope for a better life tests their relationship as they encounter marketplace beggars, middle-class charity workers, bathers in the Tiber, restaurateurs, fortune-tellers and soccer fans. If you think, therefore, thisfilm is not really just about a stolen bicycle, you’d be right.
Deeper meanings are implied, for example, when Ricci’s wife pawns the linen and the camera pans up stacks that stand for the many impoverished people in dire circumstances having to do the same. Then a mismatch of perspectives is alluded to when Antonio first reports the theft: a journalist looking for a story interrupts to ask the officer if there is any news of interest. “Nothing,” replies the bored policeman. “Only a bicycle.” Later still, we are disturbed to learn that the religious mission is really in the business of merely bribing the homeless with free meals and haircuts to increase church attendance.
An implicit layering of ideological discourse thus filters Antonio’s predicament as he entreats by turn the law, trades unions, the church, even palm-readers and finally the criminal underworld for help.
The film’s unvarnished account of Antonio’s struggle for self-respect in a broken society (that could equally be ours) compels the viewer to understand metaphorical, psychological and even socio-political truths. But Antonio and Bruno’s picaresque meandering hardly prepares us for the shocking impact of a denouement in which the curative power of love raises them to the status of Everyfather and Everylittleboy.
By 1948 Vittorio De Sica was the most well-known Italian director, having won an honorary Academy Award for Shoeshine (1946), one of the first films in a new type of cinema using a simple story of ordinary people, outdoor lighting, non-actors and social conditions.
Emerging after the Second World War, Neo Realism was not so much a movement as an aesthetic ambition that became a source of inspiration for movie-makers. Even today its influence can be seen on the likes of Ken Loach (check out the list of filmmakers on the attached poster bicycle-thief1 for the film’s 60th anniversary event at Lincoln Center with a great still from the film). It remains a by-word for artistic integrity, innovative technique and the quest for ‘truth’ in film.
A prospective Hollywood producer for the film, David O. Selznick, displayed a spectacular misunderstanding of what the film was about by proposing to cast Cary Grant as Antonion Ricci. Even more surprising is that Vittorio De Sica countered with a request for Henry Fonda. But perhaps he was just playing for time. Eventually De Sica turned away from Hollywood funding, deciding instead (luckily for us) to go for unknown and amateur actors.
In the film, therefore, Ricci’s job of hanging posters for Hollywood movies carries some irony.
The final shot, showing Antonio and Bruno walking away, was meant as an homage to De Sica’s favourite filmmaker, Charlie Chaplin, and there do seem to be moments in this film that make reference to a Chaplin masterpiece (The Kid , 1921) even if there are not as many laughs!
After winning a BAFTA and a Golden Globe (for Best Film and Best Foreign LanguageFilm) Bicycle Thieves was also given a special Academy Honorary Award in 1950 for “most outstanding foreign film.” (seven years before that category existed).
And even four years after the film was released, the magazine Sight and Sound ‘s poll of filmmakers deemed it the greatest film of all time. By 2002, however, it had slipped from first place, though it still came 6th in a list of directors’ greatest movies ever made.