Vittorio de Sica created this masterpiece in 1948 when postwar Rome was filled with hardships, poverty, and sorrow. It is a relatively simple tale of an unemployed family man, Ricci, with a wife and two children who is fortunate enough to land a city job. The job, however, requires that he have a "biciclette"---a bicycle. The bike he owns has been pawned so that the family can eat. His wife takes the sheets off of the family beds and pawns them so they can get the bike back. Great! He is all set and goes to off to work pasting announcements up around the city. The ones he is pasting are announcing a Rita Hayworth movie. (This "provides an ironic contrast between the world of Hollywood and the everyday lives of neorealism" according to Roger Ebert.) On the very first day on the job his bike is stolen. The rest of the movie is his struggle to get his bike back so he can keep his job.
As the great American playwright (and former husband of Marilyn Monroe) states in his notes on this movie: "The Bicycle Thief is Everyman's search for dignity---it is as though the soul of a man had been filmed. The film is unafraid to examine openly, straightforwardly, the terrible distorted, destructive world which Man has made for himself. His search for his stolen bike assumes shimmering proportions of symbolism. And we are lifted out of "Realisms" by realism itself into a world of simple comparisons: for instance, are we not all in search of our dignity? And does this not come to us by means of our work which is our justification and our basic worth? This man's work has been stolen from him, and the city of his home turns into a jungle around him, and he has nothing, nothing at all. This picture, perhaps above all others, performs the central function of art. Without warping the life it depicts, it discovers the meaning of that life, its significance for the race."
The struggle to get his bike back begins the moment it is stolen as he chases the thief. However, the thief has an accomplice who directs him in the wrong direction so that the thief gets away. He then goes to the police and reports the theft of his bicycle; however, all they do is take the report. They let him clearly know that they are going to do nothing to get the bike back for him. After all, "it is only a bike"---but it is NOT just a bike, it is his only means of supporting his family! After he returns home he enlists a friend's help. The friend knows where they sell stolen bikes in Rome and the next day they go there. His young son, Bruno, around 8 years old, goes with him. (DeSica is masterful with child actors and the inclusion of the son throughout the film substantially elevates the pathos.) The place where they sell bikes is a confusing place because so many bikes are there and stolen bikes are usually taken apart so that they have to locate the various pieces. They finally realize it is a lost cause. However, just as they are giving up, they spot the thief and give chase. He escapes once again but they saw him talking to an old man and track him down. With great perseverance they get some information out of the reluctant old man before he slips away on them. When he does get away, Bruno blames his father for this and the father slaps the boy. That slap is palpably painful for the boy, the father, and the audience! He loves the boy dearly, that has been already established, the boy is wonderful, and then…the slap! It angers us that he would do this…but it helps communicate just how frustrated he is, how painful this is for Ricci. The father realizes he is too caught up in the chase and so they go to get something to eat. Ricci says: "Well eat and be happy for now." And later he says: "There's a cure for everything…except death."
Not knowing what next to do the father and boy go to a psychic. We have learned about the psychic earlier in the movie. After he gets his bike out of the pawnshop and lands the job, he is heading home with his wife on the bike. She has him stop along the way and she goes in while he waits below. He is puzzled and goes up to see what she is doing. She is seeing the psychic to pay her because earlier she had gone to the psychic and had been told that her husband would get the job. He makes fun of her and believes that this is a waste of money. So now we see that he is so at a loss as to what to do that he turns to the psychic. In short, he will try anything!
He has tried everything to no avail. He is walking along with Bruno and they just happen to come across the thief again! They follow him and he goes into a whorehouse and the two of them are thrown out. The problem now is that they are in the thief's neighborhood. The people there surround Rica and are about to attack him. Fortunately, Bruno has slipped away and brought back a police officer. (Throughout the movie we see that Bruno is more skilled and resourceful than his father. Bruno has a job, Bruno knows mathematics better than his father, and now Bruno saves the day! Thank God for children. They are the future; they are where our hope and salvation truly lie. This is the key positive note throughout this otherwise depressing story of loss, poverty, and pain!)
The police officer searches the young thief's house but the bike is not there. He then explains to Ricci that nothing can be done. No witnesses, no evidence, so….. Now we know for certain that all is a lost cause. Even when you catch the thief it doesn't do any good. Life is so hard, so unjust, that you simply have to accept that and move on. By this point in the film you hate the thief for what he has done, you hate all thieves! This loving father, this wonderful family is being destroyed by the bicycle thief. You are angry. It is not fair. DeSica has shown you that the father has tried everything to get the bike back. So none of the failure can be laid on his doorstep. So all of the evil, all of the pain, all of the injustice is laid on the doorstep of the thief.
Ricci and Bruno head home. However, on the way, Ricci sees an unattended bike. All he has to do is take it---to become a bicycle thief himself! No, no….you in the audience plead with him….no Ricci, don't do it, don't give in to the temptation. Don't become a thief! You see Ricci struggling with the decision. You know he is a good man, a decent person, so that it is terrible for him to be so tempted. The young man who stole his bike never went through any of these struggles of conscience. Ricci doesn't want to be a thief. But…he doesn't want to lose his job. Jobs are very very scarce. His family has already sold the sheets off the bed to get the job. They have nothing left, he is desperate. He gives his son instructions to take the trolley home and he steals the bike!
This time; however, the thief is not as skilled as the person that took Ricci's bike. The owner spots him and gives chase, others join in and he is caught. His son has not gotten on the trolley yet so he sees this all happen. He tearfully comes to his father. The crowd reviles Ricci and intends to turn him over to the police. At no point does Ricci try to defend his actions. We in the audience want him to tell the crowd that he was desperate, that someone had stolen his bike and he had to try anything, everything to get a bike in order to save his desperate family. That is what we want Ricci to say so that the crowd will not destroy him. He has already suffered enough. We have pity for him. But Ricci does not provide a defense. He knows better than we do that he has no excuse. He deserves whatever punishment is dealt out to him.
But, remember, only a minute ago we hated ALL thieves, especially bicycle thieves! Do we now hate Ricci? No, not at all. We are sad for him. We understand what has driven him to this act of desperation.
We have changed. Now we understand life, as DeSica wants us to understand life. Don't blame people for their behavior unless you first understand what has driven them to behave as they do. Huge forces are at work here, not simplistic or individualistic motivators. Social forces have driven these people into poverty. Your mind flashes back to the scene where they pawn the family linen. When they have finished the transaction you see the clerk putting their bundle of linen on a shelf, along with a seemingly endless pile of other bundles of sheets. They are not the only ones so afflicted that they have to pawn the family sheets. They are not just among a few. They are one of almost countless numbers of the impoverished.
Fortunately, because his son is there, the owner of the bike decides not to press charges and Ricci is set free. The owner is aware of how desperate this father is, how desperate people can become, and is capable of forgiving him.
Ricci and Bruno walk off in utter despair. He holds Bruno by the hand. Ricci begins to cry as they walk off. The movie ends. No! You don't want it to end here. You want him to get his bike back; you want a happy Hollywood ending. But real life does not have many happy endings for the impoverished. If you want more happy endings, then you are going to have to help create a more just society, a society where every man willing to work has a decent job, a society that allows workers to have dignity and provides basic support systems to ensure the stability of the family. If you want a happy ending, then stop wishing for one and start doing something to make this a better world!
Background: The film won a special Academy Award in 1950 for best foreign film and also a Golden Globe Award as best foreign film. The actor who plays the father is not a skilled actor. The role is played by Lamberto Maggiorani who was not a professional actor. He is somewhat wooden, flat, and never really impressive. However, this is just what is called for in this part as it lends to the realism and makes him more like "Everyman" than like some actor. "DeSica and others often used real people instead of actors, and the effect, after decades of Hollywood gloss, was startling to audiences. Pauline Kael remembers going to see DeSica's first great film, Shoeshine, in 1947, just after a lovers' quarrel that had left her in a state of despair: 'I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, "Well, I don't see what was so special about that movie." I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?' Neorealism as a term, means many things, but it often refers to films of working-class life, set in the culture of poverty, and with the implicit message that in a better society wealth would be more evenly distributed…The Bicycle Thief had such an impact on its first release that when the British film magazine Sight & Sound held its first international poll of filmmakers and critics in 1952, it was voted the greatest film of all time" (Ebert, pp. 66-67).
DeSica was both a great director and a great actor. He was born in 1902 and died 72 years later. "He grew up in Naples in a middle-class, low-income environment. While in his teens he contributed to the family resources by working as an office clerk but soon found acting a more satisfying escape from the drudgery of his youth. He made his screen debut in 1918…" (Film Encyclopedia, p. 362). Other important films by DeSica are Miracle in Milan (1950), Two Women (1960) which starred Sophia Loren at her best, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. He also appeared as an actor in more than 150 films. His best acting can be seen in Rossellini's General della Rovere (1959).