How many masterpieces are this pure?
The Bicycle Thieves is a landmark of Italian postwar neorealism, yet that reputation would suggest a more academic and obtuse experience than this lovely little film. A jobless husband and father (unprofessional actor Lamberto Maggiorani) desperately needs work. There is a job opening to put up posters around Rome, but the applicant needs a bicycle. So his wife (Lianella Carell) sells the family bed sheets to buy the bike the husband had previously pawned, and he goes off to work a new man. Then the bicycle is stolen on his first day.
This feels like an apocalyptic turn of events, thanks to the way director Vittorio De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini have crucially conveyed all that this one bicycle means. We see the family’s desperation at the start – evoked by the barren, bombed-out landscaped in which they live – and we also see the pride (to say nothing of monetary gain) that comes with having the job. The father’s ride to his first day of work, with his young son sitting in front of him, is one of the most joyous bicycle scenes in the cinema. By the time the bike is stolen, we’ve come to understand that it’s the one thing keeping this family from falling into an impoverished abyss.
And so the rest of the film – during which the father races all over Rome in search of the bike, with his son tagging along – has a riveting intensity. Everything hangs in the balance. So much so that we even understand why this proud, dignified man makes an uncharacteristic climactic decision. How that plays out, especially in relation to his son, is one of the great heartbreaks of the movies, romantic and otherwise. The Bicycle Thieves tells a simple tale, but it captures, in elemental strokes, the crushing of the human spirit at the hands of poverty, indifference and despair.