Bicycle Thieves: a transcendent film from yesteryear

Bicycle Thieves is a film that has been able to transcend time not only with its brilliance in directing and cinematography, but also in the ability to draw the viewer into a realm of compassion and awe. The film, in its simplest form, is about the struggle of a man (Antonio Ricci), accompanied by his 9 year-old son (Bruno), to find a stolen bicycle in post-WWII Italy. However, one would not be wrong to state that the film is truly about the breakdown and loss of a man’s economic stability and morals as his son watches on. Since the film touches on many aspects of life, it is impossible to simply state what is the film’s dominant theme. Issues of class-struggle arise, the burdens of the commoner, the government’s role in providing for its citizens in times of dire needs, and the patriarchal struggle of a man having to provide for his family are all dominant themes. The city of Rome also plays a role in the film; projecting its grandeur throughout multiple shots. Columned buildings, passenger-filled streetcars, crowds of fans waiting outside of the majestic Roman stadiums, and the role of the church fill the screen at various times; forcing the viewer to imagine what an Italian life would consist of. Italian culture is even a central character, highlighting aspects that help to define their cultural independency from other Western countries. Bicycle Thieves revolutionized the film industry upon its release. It was, and still is, widely heralded as a brilliant masterpiece. Critics throughout the years have analyzed the content of this film, and yet some have managed to leave out a central motif—the role of Bruno as the moral compass for Antonio. Seventy years later, the effects of this film are still important and continue to influence cinema.

In 1999, film critic Roger Ebert gave Bicycle Thieves a four-star rating in his review titled, “The Bicycle Thief.” Ebert stated that the film “is so well-entrenched as an official masterpiece that it is a little startling to visit it again after many years and realize that it is still alive and has strength and freshness” (Ebert). In his analysis, Ebert writes about the film’s beauty in its simplicity. The director, Vittorio De Sica, believed in using non-professional actors—quite literally people he found working on the streets of Italy—to capture the raw emotion of the struggles of the commoner. Ebert points out that De Sica “believed that everyone could play one role perfectly: himself” (Ebert). In his analysis, Ebert decides to highlight the fact that Antonio, on his first day on the job, hangs up a poster of Rita Hayworth; noting the “ironic contrast between the world of Hollywood and the everyday lives of neorealism” (Ebert). He states in his review that the film serves as a “parable” to the needs of the common man, and that although there were some critical reviews when it was first released, over time the film is able to “[escape] from its critics” and simply become a story (Ebert). Ebert mentions a scene in a restaurant that Antonio and Bruno visit noting that this is where Antonio starts to develop as a character on a deeper basis. However, he does not elaborate on how Antonio and Bruno are discussing Antonio’s pay—Antonio accounting for the pejorative government stipend along with his work’s wages. Without reading deep into this scene, Ebert is not considering the life lesson being taught to Bruno. That although a man can work hard and be paid a decent wage, there will still be those who have inherited their wealth while others inherit the struggle to attain such equality. Ebert also misses in thoroughly analyzing the role of Bruno. Ebert points out that the restaurant scene does highlight the relationship between father and son, however it also points to Antonio realizing that a major source of his joy comes from bettering the life of his son, and how his son is there to help guide him into making moral and proper decisions. Where Ebert misses in his analysis of the poverty of Bicycle Thieves, Charles Burnett picks up.

A director and film critic for The Criterion Collection, Charles Burnett, provides elegant prose in his review of Bicycle Thieves. Burnett states that the film “gives meaning to the common man” and draws comparisons from the film to his own life (Burnett). Having grown up near housing projects in Los Angeles, Burnett states how he can see what the film was actually made for, “a tool for change” (Burnett). Burnett goes on to state that the goal of the film is to bring awareness to social conditions that can only be solved by a political solution. Burnett’s analysis of the film is literarily pleasing and analytical. He states that the “most significant insight” he gained from watching the film was that “stories don’t have to be complicated” (Burnett). With this sentence Burnett is capturing the essence of the film; that a story about a man and his son trying to find a stolen bicycle carries with it myriad of underlying meanings and intrinsic connotations of everyday life. The simplicity of Bicycle Thieves has made it the time-defying movie that it is. The scene that stands out the most for Burnett is Antonio’s first ride to work on his bike with Bruno sitting on the handlebars. The “lovely score over the scene…turns it into poetry” (Burnett). Perhaps it is because of his own similar experiences, that Burnett can read so well into the scenes of the film and picks up where Ebert misses. Picking out facial expression of background characters; minor roles played with such expression and emotion on the faces that belong to the average Italian. What Burnett is picking out of the film is what resonates with myself as well; that the lives of everyday people, no matter how lackluster, are incredibly beautiful and full of meaning. The acts of the commoners may seem useless and inept for the haut monde, but De Sica, and Burnett in his prose, have captured the beauty of the common man and solidified it in film history. However, Burnett also misses in analyzing the role of Bruno as well. What seems to be producing all the joy in Antonio on his bike ride to work with his son is the opportunity to provide for his family. Bruno is there to ensure his father’s bike is in working order and to see that it is well taken care. But what Bruno is actually taking care of is his father. He is ensuring that his father will be able to provide for his family and in turn provide the stability and happiness that he is desperately trying to pursue.

Bicycle Thieves is a transcendent film that sits in a class of its own. Filmmaker and critic Godfrey Cheshire, states in his article, “Bicycle Thieves: A Passionate Commitment to the Real,” that “much of modern cinema can seem to flow from twin fountainheads: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves” (Cheshire). Cheshire details the bifurcation of the film industry based upon these two films. “Where Citizen Kane heralded the age of auteur and …individual vision, Bicycle Thieves renounced ‘egoism’ for collective concern” (Cheshire). The amiable camera techniques used by De Sica help to give the film a look that is pure and cathartic. Cheshire focuses on the role of neorealism in his critique quite a bit. He states that it was “born in the fires of war” and was conceived to offer a rejection to Fascism and fantasy (Cheshire). Cheshire also touches slightly on the idea of the city of Rome as an important character as well. However, it is only Cheshire who touches briefly on the idea of Bruno as Antonio’s moral compass. “A second viewing of the film might suggest that… Bruno has been ‘looking after’ Antonio” (Cheshire).

Throughout the film there are many instances when it seems as if Bruno is there to provide clarity and a moral direction for his father. When Antonio strays and begins to set aside his morals and ethics, it is Bruno who helps keep him rooted. In the first scene where Bruno is shown, he is cleaning his father’s bike for him before his first day of work. Needing more light, Bruno opens a window to finish his work. As Antonio and Bruno are leaving, Bruno’s golden morals are shown for the first time as he rushes back to close the window, preventing an early-morning draft from hitting his baby brother. Later when Antonio, out of frustration and annoyance, slaps Bruno for questioning his actions, the pain and horror expressed on Bruno’s face is almost immediately mirrored on that of Antonio’s as well—a look that represents immediate regret and guilt. The final scene is where we see Antonio’s morals corrupt and shatter. Antonio sends Bruno off to wait for him on a street corner nearby. Thinking his son—and moral compass—is gone Antonio breaks down and decides to steal a bicycle. As he is pedaling away from the crowd of people who saw him steal the bike, Bruno’s face is filled with confusion and horror as his father tries to escape on the stolen bicycle. Antonio is quickly caught and the horror on Bruno’s face is once again mirrored on Antonio’s once he sees his son. This scene is quite hard to watch as a man, out as desperation to provide for his family, has a relapse in morals and commits the same crime done to him.

Bicycle Thieves has been able to inspire films well beyond its release date. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), starring Will Smith, seems to be the modern version of this film. Within the first 20 minutes there are multiple similarities between the films. The mother in The Pursuit of Happyness is working in some sort of laundromat with stacks of linens as high as the camera portrays, giving a nod to the scene where Maria, Antonio’s wife, has to pawn their bed sheets. The theme of a man having to struggle to provide for his family is similar, as well as the lack of government intervention to ensure a more egalitarian society. Chris, Smith’s character, even has the tool for his livelihood stolen—a bone density monitor—and has to chase down the thief, only to have them roll away in a subway car. Chris, like Antonio, must steal something as well to try and better himself and provide for a family that society demands is his patriarchal duty. The theme and camera work are similar as well; capturing the role of the San Francisco Bay Area and American culture; similar to the way De Sica captured Rome and Italian culture in Bicycle Thieves.

Bicycle Thieves is a masterpiece beautifully shot, acted, and directed. The raw emotion portrayed on the actors’ faces come from deep felt experiences that only the common (wo)man could experience. De Sica captured a theme that will be able to transcend time; the struggles of the everyday citizen and the beauty, drama, and heartbreak that happens in their day to day struggles. Whether it was intentional or not, De Sica’s decision to have Bruno to act as Antonio’s guiding light can be applied to real life, as parents often look to their children for inspiration and motivation to strive, not only to make themselves better, but for a society that is better as well. By observing films like Bicycle Thieves and The Pursuit of Happyness, the viewer can understand the struggles of their neighbors, as well as the problems that need to be addressed throughout the world. These films will continue to inspire future generations because of their depictions of everyday struggles and their portrayals of the culture that allows those struggles to exist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. “The Bicycle Thief.” RogerEbert.com, 19 March, 1999, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-bicycle-thief–bicycle-thieves-1949

Burnett, Charles. “Bicycle Thieves: Ode to the Common Man.” The Criterion Collection, 12 February 2007, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1090-bicycle-thieves-ode-to-the-common-man

Cheshire, Godfrey. “Bicycle Thieves: A Passionate Commitment to the Real.” The Criterion Collection, 12 February 2007. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/467-bicycle-thieves-a-passionate-commitment-to-the-real

 

 

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