The Bicycle Thief (1948)


Vittorio De Sica’s great 1948 movie about the postwar bad economic times in Rome, The Bicycle Thief, a movie now 61 years old, might well be not only one of the best movies ever but the best movie for dramatizing the hard times for many of today’s Americans in the Great Recession.

De Sica, a prominent Italian “neorealist” filmmaker, used not star actors but people with little or no acting experience; shot his movies in black and white; used few if any props and special effects or specially designed sets; and produced films on low budgets.

The Bicycle Thief, on nearly all filmdom Top Tens, is an unrelenting and unsentimental story of a good little man in bad times, punishing and torturing times, who in his helpless and unhelped desperation does not prevail; he can only flailingly fail in a complex, impersonal world disinterested in him in his terrible misfortune unless that world is provoked against him, whereupon it becomes predatory.

By the ending of The Bicycle Thief, a 93-minute movie, De Sica has made a brutal realism simultaneously a nightmare like those in which we’ve experienced a complex, maze-like futility of desperate search for rescue and refuge and from which we are immensely relieved to awaken. But there is no awakening in De Sica’s movie: all is finally and exhaustingly hopeless and lost for Antonio Ricci and his little son, Bruno, over an inevitably doomed, heartbreakingly modest, but supremely desperate quest which fails utterly in but a few hours in the glaring, sunlit sprawl of Rome, an ironically timeless natural set for this prototypical bad-luck human story, a quest to recover Antonio’s stolen bicycle, a bicycle bought with the money from his wife’s pawning of their few bed linens and a bicycle mandated for a precious city job in the post war economic depression Antonio has miraculously been handed by a foreman with a list of names and standing on stone steps above a yelling crowd of jobless fathers and grandfathers, the job to put up posters in far-flung public places.

Yes, the bicycle is forever lost; we understand this painfully as we enter the nightmarish swirl of this urban world.

At the end of the sad drama comes the single instance of Ricci and Bruno receiving kindness from a stranger, but that kindness brings small relief. Antonio and Bruno, and the wife and mother, Maria, are lost. Forgotten unfortunates. It is not certain they won’t starve.

Seeing The Bicycle Thief again today is an enlightening reminder. Afterwards, I am sure, you will think hard about why such a movie would not possibly be made today by any of the major studios, networks, and, most likely, even the small, independent filmmakers (excepting, perhaps, Morgan Spurlock [Super Size Me] who, though, is no De Sica). You’ll probably imagine some latter-day De Sica making the rounds among moguls and lesser with his story concept. Most likely there will even be a few chuckles when imagining how the inevitable rejection scenarios might play out. But I’d imagine humor won’t be the lasting experience when pondering the unique aptness today of this 61-year-old movie.

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