Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola in The Bicycle Thief.
What makes The Bicycle Thief such a special movie is the utter simplicity of its story told straightforwardly through the vivid reality of a working class family inhabiting Rome more than half a century ago. Only after you have finished watching this movie do you begin to realize its depth and complexity. There are profound moral issues here cloaked in drama.
The father of a poor family in Rome lands a desperately needed job. Unfortunately this man has recently pawned his bicycle, the one thing on which the job depends. As a viewer you immediately assume, as the title overtly suggests, that out of necessity, he will steal one. But instead he gets his bike out of hock, starts his new employment and ends up the victim of the heist. He then spends the entire day, accompanied by his son, searching for his bike and the thief who has ruined his life. Eventually they find him, but are unable to prove his guilt. They stumble away in anger. At one point the man and his son argue and he slaps his son's face. They separate and moments later the man thinks his son has drowned. He soon realizes this isn't true and, reunited, they eat a fine meal with wine and then continue the search. As the day draws to a close the man grows more and more desperate. Finally succumbing to temptation he perpetuates the crime committed against him. He steals a bicycle himself and now, suddenly, the viewer realizes that this man was the title character all along.
What outside forces may drive someone to commit a crime? This man desperately needed his bicycle to feed, clothe and house himself, his wife and their young son. Justice spit on him. This man, who in every other regard appears to be an upright and honest citizen has committed a crime. But because he is caught his soul can be redeemed leaving father and son to walk off into the eternal city, happy to be alive and together.
Besides the Fable like quality of the story and superb acting, The Bicycle Thief contains the gem of Rome itself. The city is an unforgettable character.
This movie was one of the first to feature a Rita Hayworth poster in a crucial scene. It is, in fact, a poster of the sultry redhead that the man is putting up when his bicycle is stolen. More recently both The Shawshank Redemption and Mullholland Drive have carried on this fine tradition.
Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola in The Bicycle Thief.
The plot and the theme of The Bicycle Thief are quite simple. (I was going to say deceptively simple, but there's no deception to it). A man, down on his luck and out of pride, in post-World War II Italy, with a wife and son, desperately needs a job so that he can regain his pride and provide for his family. Just when he thinks he will be able to do that, forces beyond his control prevent it from happening. Who among us can't identify with someone struggling against a world that seems to be going out of its way to keep them down?
Patrick pretty much covered the plot, but I would like to add some of my thoughts on it. I liked how the director teases you at the beginning. You know from the title that obviously someone's bicycle is going to be stolen. But who steals it? The hero to get his job? No, he gets his own back from the pawnbroker. Will it be stolen in the Poster hanging office where he is asked to leave it? No? How about when he stupidly leaves it outside the psychic's home? And so on.. The Rita Hayworth poster to me was a cool way of showing the stark contrast between this man's world and the glamour of Hollywood. The restaurant scene that immediately follows the scene where the man mistakenly worries that his son has drowned is significant in a couple of ways. First, in that it shows that to these people, being able to afford a plate of pasta every day is their definition of wealth, and it also serves to put the situation with the bicycle in perspective. If his son had died, how important would the bike seem then? And finally, not to read too much into it, but it seems to me that the movie presents a cycle(no pun intended) of poverty. A bike is stolen, one must be stolen to replace it. Had the man not been caught, the cycle would have continued, but with his capture and subsequent release, the cycle has been broken and he is free of it.
In many ways this movie reminded me of a silent film. Its simple plot and long stretches with no one saying a word are reminiscent of a silent movie, something that is enhanced by the presence of subtitles.
I've always liked the quote, 'I don't know much about art, but I know what I like.' Meaning, to me at least, artsy fartsy, if it hasn't got a good story and characters I can relate to, all the great visuals and cinematography and symbolism in the world, aren't going to make me enjoy it. This probably explains my love/hate relationship with so called art house movies. But The Bicycle Thief, which is clearly a work of art, finds its art and soul, not in any of those things I mentioned earlier, but in the hearts of its characters and their simple quest for dignity and sustenance.
Never did I imagine the importance of a bicycle.
Patrick mentioned Rome, and I have to add that the setting is very important. It does not give much history on Antonio, but we do know that he survived World War II under a fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. He may or may not have fought in the war, but his age makes it possible. Several huge battles were fought in mainland Italy. A couple of men wear German army hats left over from the Nazi occupation.
He, his wife and their two children live in a war torn country. She has to get water from a well, a block away from their apartment. She sacrificed her one valuable possession to get the bike out of hock. This is a family desperate for a break. The job represents security for them, and a future. Two stressed people suddenly exhale. His story could have easily ended the moment he hung the Rita Hayworth poster up. He and his wife living a happily modest ever after. However, fate steps in.
I empathized greatly with Antonio. After his bike is stolen, he is basically at the same place he was when the movie started, unemployed. However, the film showed just how important that job was, and I was drawn into his happiness. When the rug gets pulled out from under him, his desperation is palpable. Throughout his days journey into hell, I desperately wanted him to find his bike. You feel his frustration and guilt.
The ending is very fascinating. He gets caught stealing another man's bicycle. As it became apparent that he would not get away with it, I began to imagine just how much worse his life could actually be if he is sent to prison. By the grace of the bikes owner, he is let go. Thus the movie has a sad, yet some what happy, ending.
The character of the desperate father has been done before and after, see Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921), or Paddy Considine from In America (2003). As with those other actors, Lamberto Maggiori draws you in and allows you to see just how incredibly vulnerable a man is when he has loved ones depending on him. Certainly single men have needs, but when a man commits to a spouse and children, he, in a sense, becomes a slave to their needs. A single man has to only answer to himself. A married father is bound by law, morality and honor to take care of his family. He has no respectable way out.
Some movies do not age well, but The Bicycle Thief has. Looking at this movie today in the United States, where any 10 year old owns a bike, takes this movie to another level. To add to your list Patrick, photos of Rita Hayworth adorn a wall in 1954's Beat the Devil, and in Memphis Belle (1990), one serviceman offers to give his Rita Hayworth poster to another.
Photos © Copyright Produzioni De Sica (1949)