Film Reviews (Seriously) – THE BICYCLE THIEF
Twice in my life, I have found myself out of work – reduced, by the stroke of an executive pen (and a really nice one, I’m sure), to a nameless, faceless unemployment statistic. The euphemism used was that I had been “down-sized” or ‘right-sized” or some such nonsense. It was really no different than a parent telling a child that their now-deceased pet was off living on a farm. Just like dead is dead, no matter what you call it, unemployed is unemployed.
Truthfully, I was luckier than many. In each instance, I had received a decent severance package that helped me limp through to the next job. Regardless, those months of uncertainty still left me worried about the future, and about providing for my family. Oh sure, at first I was full of bravado, believing that at any minute the phone would ring off the hook with job offers. After too many months and too few phone calls, panic set in. I was still okay financially, and would be for a little while, but the bleak forecast gnawed at my nerves, so I did everything possible to gain some sense of security – from applying for jobs at less than half my regular salary to assessing the salability of personal collectibles to fatten my war chest. Fortunately, both jobless instances ended well and I received comparable job offers.
The measures I took (which seemed desperate at the time) were not all that drastic, and they wound up being unnecessary, which was fortunate for me. But, sadly, this is not always the case. In today’s economically dreadful times, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) is a film that could have been made yesterday, let alone 60+ years ago. It is the most simple yet most powerful of tales about a man, his great misfortune, and what he must endure in the name of providing for his family.
Antonio Ricci (Maggiorani) is in a tough spot. He is unemployed during a time when there are few jobs but many workers. A break comes his way when he is offered a job hanging posters along the city streets. (The posters depict Rita Hayworth, from her role in 1946’s Gilda, which cuts a clear contrast between the poverty of Antonio’s life and the excesses of America’s Hollywood.) The job will pay him more than enough to support his wife, Maria (Carell), and his son, Bruno (Staiola). But his tough spot-turned-lucky break turns bad again into an awful Catch-22.
To get the job, Antonio must have a bicycle, but he pawned his bicycle because he didn’t have a job and needed to feed his family. The dilemma is clear: No bike no job, no job no money, no money no bike. Around and around his predicament goes, like the spokes on a wheel of the bike he once owned and needs again. He tries to negotiate with the employer to forego the bike, but the employer insists that he have one or forfeit the work. Antonio finally lies to the employer, collects his work orders, and shuffles home, disappointed that he so readily sacrificed his simplest of principles. Maria’s solution to the problem is to hock their bed sheets to get enough money to reclaim the bike. Her idea works, and Antonio is set to begin his new job the next day.
After learning the basics of poster hanging, Antonio proudly practices his new trade until his bike is stolen while he hangs another Rita Hayworth poster. He witnesses the crime and gives chase, but he loses sight of the thief in a sea of car, foot, and bike traffic. The police are no help, so Antonio, who lies to his son about the bike’s whereabouts and can’t bear to face his wife because of the heartache the news will surely cause, seeks help from friends who take him to some local outdoor markets where unscrupulous vendors are known to peddle stolen wares. Antonio and friends scour the markets to no avail, and soon Antonio is left to his own devices to find his bike. During this time, he experiences everything from breath-holding hope to absolute despair.
What moves me the most about The Bicycle Thief is the tale’s chain of events. This is not a story of a quest to retrieve a stolen bike to get a job and desperately grab that brass ring of security. Antonio already grabbed the ring, but it was taken from him, and along with it went his pride, his livelihood, his security, and his family’s means of survival. To paraphrase an old saying, it’s better to have worked and lost than never to have worked at all. This might be true, but like love, working and losing hurts far much more than having never worked, and Antonio shares that pain with the viewer throughout the film.
And what of the bike itself? Could a simpler object be more important to a man? Today, and to many, a bike is a cheap luxury, a recreational toy, or even a foregone conclusion (in terms of ownership). The simplicity of the bike as an object of importance, particularly by today’s standards, only magnifies the tragedy.
Throughout the film, De Sica reminds us of the scope of Antonio’s situation. We are immediately introduced to a high jobless environment, as hundreds of men wait anxiously with the hopes of getting one of only a few jobs. And when Maria hocks the bed sheets, Antonio looks through the pawnbroker’s small window and sees huge shelves – the kind you would find in today’s home improvement warehouse stores – lining the walls, stuffed with hocked linens.
Look at these men, De Sica says in the first example, and see how many are in tough spots. And in the second example, look at all the linens that represent all the sacrifices made by all the wives.
This job is not just important to Antonio for his livelihood; this job might be his only real shot at survival in the foreseeable future. We know he was a desperate man before he got the job, but when we see that it is not just Antonio who is hurting, that the same desperation can be attributed to hundreds of men and hundreds of wives, we feel the magnitude of his anguish when his bike is taken from him with depraved indifference.
When the bike is finally stolen, how heartbreaking is it to see that in the streets where there were once only a smattering of bicycles, dozens upon dozens of them suddenly appear; so many, in fact, that Antonio isn’t even sure which way to go to begin his search. He stands like a lost child in a shopping mall, wondering in what store he might find his mommy. And the multitude of bikes (and their parts) at the outdoor markets only compound Antonio’s desperation. He never says it, but he must wonder just how many bikes can exist in such a tiny section of the world.
De Sica also portrays Antonio’s ongoing powerlessness so very well. Consider the opening scene, with the large group of men huddled around the employer. Yes, Antonio lands one of the coveted jobs, but the employer wields the power, and it is only through a compromise of principles – a lie – that Antonio is able to bend the power his way.
Then there are the pawnshop brokers. These are surely the richest men around, with money to buy things and keep things on shelves to collect interest and dust, and money is the power that they have no shame in flaunting. They obviously have plenty of cash (the linen collection alone attests to that), and Antonio is powerless without their wealth. You might say that Antonio’s linens offer him some power, but really, they don’t. If they did, he could trade them for the bike, straight up, but he can’t. He needs the moneymen as his middlemen, to offer cash for his sheets so he can offer cash for his bike, and therefore those moneymen hold all the power, with Antonio caught helplessly in the middle.
The thief that steals the bike also wields power over Antonio. The poster-hanger is an honest, hard-working man, where the thief is neither. Because of the thief’s immorality, ambivalence, and unscrupulousness, Antonio is powerless, a victim of the oft-used phrase, “No good deed goes unpunished.” The cops, for all of their power, are of no help, and the sea of merchants at the market are overpowering if for no other reason than sheer volume. Antonio is lost at sea, in a raging storm, with nothing but a leaky rowboat, one good oar, and his son, Bruno.
Bruno is deep for a kid.
His first scene takes place the night before his father is to start work. He proudly cleans the recently reclaimed bike, noting there is a small dent in it that wasn’t there before it found a temporary home in the pawnshop. The lad is not only so proud of his father that he wants the bike to be perfect, you get the sense that he knows the pride his father feels in having a job again. Early the next morning, the two ride together to work (yes, even the child has responsibilities), but after the bike is stolen and Antonio arrives on foot to pick up his son after work, he lies to his son, claiming that the bike is broken.
Bruno ultimately learns of the theft, and never leaves his father’s side. Together they frantically search for the bike, and as the situation grows more desperate, Antonio’s treatment of the boy deteriorates from yelling (which is deserved, as Bruno has a mouth on him), to not allowing the lad to go to the bathroom (which will slow the search), to physically striking him. But this mature boy of five or six recognizes that his father, in a state of proud yet blinding desperation, cannot differentiate between caring for his family and caring about his family. Bruno has a maturity that defies his age, and fortunately for Antonio, the boy’s loyalty to him saves him from the consequences of one final and terribly poor decision.
The Bicycle Thief is the perfect representation of De Sica’s mastery of post-war neo-realism. It was nominated for one Oscar® (Best Writing, Screenplay) which it lost to A Letter to Three Wives, but it was presented with an honorary Oscar® by the Academy Board of Governors for being the best foreign film released in the United States. Honorary Oscars® were issued to foreign films from (award years) 1947-1955, before an actual category was dedicated to honoring foreign films in 1956. The first such Honorary Oscar® awarded went to 1946’s Shoe-Shine which was directed by … Vittorio De Sica.