Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thieves ★★★★½

Unemployed Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) finds a job putting posters up around the city, but when his bicycle is stolen he and his son (Enzo Staiola) embark on an increasingly desperate journey to find it, in Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist drama.

Though the narrative is seemingly quite simple, there’s a certain universal quality that make it so impactful, as Antonio’s search becomes one of self-respect and survival for his family. These issues are explored in a clear-eyed, unsentimental yet deeply empathetic way, giving a voice to those barely able to get by on the fringes of society.

It’s all shot in real places, capturing a particular side of post-war Italy and the sense of helplessness the situation creates, the characters losing more and more agency as their quest goes on. But mixed in with this frustration is a feeling of hope that runs throughout, a vast web of interconnectedness in the bustling streets put under the spotlight.

We’re always given a sense that everyone is inextricably bound up in this little world created on screen, where the smallest act can cause either help or harm, and to his credit de Sica never takes easy moralisations; there are no good or bad people, he seems to be saying, only people, each struggling to get by in their own way.

He’s got a keen eye for the milieu of the story, painting a rich portrait of the time and place that adds to the rawness and sincerity being displayed. Whether it be the eclectic stalls of a bustling market, a makeshift community centre with everyone pitching in or rows of anxious people waiting for a local fortune teller, each little detail adds texture to the world on screen, showing a vibrant world full of people with their own aspirations and worries.

Maggiorani had never acted before, working in a factory prior to being cast, and though this lack of experience does come across he brings a stoic, heartfelt quality that makes Antonio’s perseverance all the more touching. You can see the hope dimming in his eyes as time goes on, and yet Maggiorani plays it with a quiet dignity which results in some truly heartbreaking moments. 

Both lead characters are quite thinly sketched, which sometimes creates a bit of a distance with what’s happening on screen, but I suppose this also links with the idea that anyone could be in this situation. Although there’s not much to it on paper the film still packs an emotional punch even now, the immensely understated approach allows the various little episodes to dovetail into one powerful whole, the emotional weight slowly building into an impactful finale.

De Sica seems less interested with reflecting real life than he is in evoking it, using deliberately heightened devices like the constant bicycle imagery in a way that brings us into Antonio’s mind, mixing various styles for effect. 

Bicycle Thieves has a fairly slight plot, and took me a little while to get into, but it’s shot through with a heart and honesty that makes it an incredibly moving testament to everyday hardship and resilience.

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