Ranking: #78/111

Director: Vittorio De Sica (Italy) 

Genre: Neo Realism Drama

James Monaco has pointed out that following the fall of fascism in Italy at the end of World War 2, there was a “flood of politically active, aesthetically revolutionary films known collectively as Neo Realism” (Monaco, J, How to Read a Film – Movies, Media and Beyond, p. 314). This burst of Neo Realism in cinema included Rossellini’s Open City and the most iconic film of this movement, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves.

The post-war movement focused on the relationship of characters to the social environment. Neorealists used non-professional actors to increase the authenticity of depicting the lives of the working-class, or the ordinary people.  Such films also used black-and-white cinematography to paint gritty portraits of the times, often related to economic hardship. A final common element I’ve noticed in several Neo Realist films is a tone of existential angst.

While Film Noir films often portray the underworld and the dark side of society, with characters motivated by greed and self-interest, capable of resorting to violence, Neo Realist films tended to take a more broad-brush, economic view of the world. Just as the Soviet School of Socialist Realism had once highlighted the role of workers in their film narratives, especially in the era of black-and-white silent films, so Neo Realist movies depicted the struggles of ordinary people caught up in difficult times, for example, in post-war Italy.

The Bicycle Thieves shares this obsession about situations of human desperation. Its story traces the misfortunes of a poor father, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) looking for his stolen bicycle in the streets of Rome, out of fear he’ll lose his humble job pasting movie posters and advertising bills to billboards in the streets of Rome. In the economic downturn after the war, with high rates of unemployment, jobs are hard to come by and he becomes anxious about failing to provide for his young family of four. Soon after he gets the job, his bicycle is stolen (“no bike, no job” he was told when applying for the job). He and his son Bruno go on a frustrating odyssey through Rome looking for the thief.

At the time the film was made, Maggiorani was himself a factory worker and a non-professional actor. Despite having given one of the stand-out authentic performances of a working-class hero in the whole Neo Realist genre, he never again tasted the success he enjoyed with this iconic movie. He had delicately conveyed the range of emotions associated with unemployment, fear of losing your job and dread of not providing for your family. This performance, and the relationship with his son, played by Enzo Staiola with extraordinary power for a young boy, were major contributors to the film’s artistic success.

There are many unforgettable moments in the film, such as when the father foolishly takes Bruno to a fancy restaurant to try to cheer him up, which they absolutely cannot afford, or when the man, whose bicycle Antonio steals when he can’t find his own, doesn’t press charges against him after seeing Bruno cry. Although the crowds shout “Criminal!!” at Antonio, the owner of the stolen bicycle sees into the hidden humanity of a man who is just a desperate father trying to provide for this family. It has been a time of personal humiliations for Antonio and, to a lesser extent, for his son, and they are united at the end in their love for each other.

This movie earned its special place in cinematic history by perfectly embodying the Neo Realist aesthetic with an apparent effortlessness. It’s all there – the use of nonprofessional actors, the rugged street scenes filmed in almost grainy black-and-white, the emphasis on the battles of the poor and the struggles of the working-class in its plot, the social portrait that both informs and emerges from the story. But it’s the depth and intensity of the personal and economic struggle depicted in Da Sica’s finest film which elevated it to the status of a timeless classic.