Set in post-war Rome, Bicycle Thieves tells the story of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), and their son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola) as they struggle to get by in the ruined city. The film begins with a mob of job seekers gathered outside a government office waiting for any kind of work. The clerk offers Antonio a job with one condition; he must have a bicycle. He takes the job then has to come up with the money to retrieve his from the repair shop. His wife hocks their bed sheets for the money to pay for the bike and the two ride home happy. The next day, Antonio sets off for his new job and the promise of a change in his family’s fortune. As Antonio works hanging posters, a gang of thieves steal his bike. He chases the thief, but loses him in the crowded streets. Antonio reports the crime to the police who clearly don’t care and make no effort to help him. He enlists the help of his friends led by Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda) and together the group of men and young Bruno walk the bicycle market where Baiocco says the thieves will attempt to sell Antonio’s bicycle parts. They come up empty and Antonio and Bruno go alone to another market. There Antonio sees the thief, but loses him again. He finds an associate of the thief and follows him to a church-run mission where, after making a scene during the service, Antonio gets the address of the thief. Antonio and Bruno go to the thief’s neighborhood, but have to fight off the neighborhood toughs to escape and even a sympathetic policeman cannot help him. Exhausted and desperate, Antonio makes a final attempt to save his job and his family and possibly lose himself.
Throughout the film we see De Sica making political and social statements about bureaucracy, government, politics, and the nature of man. He doesn’t hit you over the head with them a la Oliver Stone though. He shows the anonymity of bureaucracy using shots of a large wall of shelves holding bed sheets sold by the poor to buy food or in Antonio’s case, a bicycle. Behind the policeman in the station we see a group of identical cubbies holding papers. Each file, a crime with a victim they probably can’t or won’t help. There’s also an election going on during the few days the story takes place with politicians speaking philosophically on social issues while people starve.
Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica won’t exactly cheer you up, but it’s a beautifully made film with subtle performances from all its leads and a lovely score by Alessandro Cicognini (Summertime, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Lamberto Maggiorani (Umberto D., Women Without Names) has little dialogue, but he’s on screen for the entire film and every feeling shows on his chiseled features. You see every possible emotion on his face. His love for his wife and children, his hope for their future, his sadness and fear at this loss on top of all his other losses, and finally his anger and desperation all play on his face like a film on a screen. Enzo Staiola (The Barefoot Contessa, La Ragazza dal Pigiama Giallo) as Bruno also astounds with the subtlety of his acting. That such a young child could project such emotion amazed me. De Sica cast mostly non-professional actors in Bicycle Thieves claiming he wanted authentic, and not trained emotions conveyed to the audience. It works. An engaging story, lovely and realistic performances, and a beautiful score make for a wonderful and touching film. I’m glad I saw it.