What was originally a neorealist classic about a specific time and place has become a universal portrait of the grinding tragedy of poverty, says Dan Slevin.
In the opening scenes of De Sica’s 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves a young mother goes to the factory-sized pawnshop in her neighbourhood to turn in the family bed sheets. “They’re used,” says the attendant. “Two are new,” she replies. Can you imagine the state your family must be in to resort to that level of desperation? In fact, it’s only the beginning.
Maria (Llanella Carell) pawns the sheets because the family needs money to get her husband’s bicycle out of hock. He’s been offered a rare and precious job putting up posters around the city but only if he has a bike to get around, a bike that is currently sitting alongside hundreds of others that are being used as a pitiful security for the loans that are keeping Roman families fed in the lean years following the end of World War II.
Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is giddy with happiness at finally being able to support his family and slowly get them out of grinding poverty but on his first day on the job – while he is putting up a poster of Rita Hayworth – the bicycle is stolen and, despite giving chase through the streets of Rome, the trail goes cold.
He knows that without the bicycle, the job is gone and without the job his dreams are dashed. The next day he enlists the help of some garbage collector friends to scour the city for the bike or the thief and his young son Bruno (who makes his own contribution to the family finances by working at a gas station rather than going to school) joins them on the search.
Every moment of hope is dashed and the situation becomes more and more desperate until Antonio makes a fateful decision which will break your heart.
Somehow, I hadn’t managed to watch Bicycle Thieves before this week, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since. Someone once said that it is very expensive to be poor and Bicycle Thieves is a perfect demonstration of that. Rome is slowly reconstructing after the war but many of the city lots are still empty – and many of them will still be so when we get to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 1960. Jobs are scarce with dozens of men waiting outside the government employment agency every morning for scraps.
The film is a great example of the style known as Italian neorealist where small crews would shoot in real locations surrounded by normal people going about their daily lives. The roles would be cast with non-professional actors (the gaunt Maggiorani was a factory worker) and the focus would be on portraits of the lives of the people who would be buying the tickets.
But this is a film that doesn’t require any knowledge of film theory or history to appreciate. It plays as well today as it did when it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1950. The story is as relatable as it was then and the straightforward telling of it packs every bits as big a punch as it must have done then.
The only mystery is how, since the 2012 poll, the film has dropped from 33rd in the list of greatest ever films to 41st. For me, it deserves to be much higher.
Bicycle Thieves is streaming on Mubi and participating library BeamaFilm services. You can also rent it from Apple.
Dan Slevin is spending 2023 watching each of the Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time (according to the BFI/Sight & Sound magazine).