Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Directed by Vittorio De Sica

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Bicycle Thieves is like Italy’s Citizen Kane.  I took a series of film classes in college, and I swear we watched Citizen Kane at least three times.  It’s supposed to be this highly influential epic, and it’s great and all, but it’s almost too well-known to be… well, cool.  And that was my impression of Bicycle Thieves before watching it.  You know, I watch these old films because I want to expand my film knowledge, so finding old Italian films like La Strada (Fellini) or Persona (Bergman), are great because not only are they made by established, well-known directors, but the films themselves are still just obscure enough to offer you something you hadn’t experienced before.  But Bicycle Thieves is so famous that I felt like I had already seen the film.  Hell, the first episode of the second season of Master of None is an homage to this film.  Actually, it’s more of a copy of this film, almost beat for beat, just fifty or so minutes shorter.

But Bicycle Thieves still has something to offer.  It’s a great film, probably one of the more plotted films I’ve seen of these old Italian pictures made from 1948 to the 60s.  Still, it’s character-driven plot, and it’s quite simple.  A man desperate for work, Antonio, gets a job for which he needs his bike.  His bike is stolen, and he spends the rest of the film looking for it alongside his adorable son.  Along the way they come across people of different economic backgrounds, and each instance highlights their own economic, working-class struggle.

The film has a lot to say about class in this way.  In the beginning, when Antonio gets a job putting up posters, he is positively thrilled.  It’s like he just won the lottery.  His wife prepares his uniform, joking that he looks like a cop, and he seems to skip about the house like he’s Hugh Hefner at the delicate point in time between the height of his fame and when his skin started melting into himself.

So everything is great.  Antonio has a job, and basically he’s succeeding within the constructs of this society.  He’s playing the game, and it’s working.  But then his bike is stolen by some young kid, and without the bike his job is impossible.  So though the bike theft is maybe the simplest, most innocent of crimes I’ve ever seen in a film categorized on filmstruck.com as a “crime drama,” it means so so much to Antonioni and his family.  You can feel the desperation that lines his face and the corresponding torture that seems to rip his soul in half.

Again, this seems such a simple movie on the surface, and it is, but every line, every look, every shot highlights the economic disparity between certain characters and emphasizes the burden Antonio has just to survive, for him and his family.

He and his son, Bruno, eventually find the bike thief, but the boy’s family and neighbors all come out to defend him.  A policeman tells Antonio that without a witness and certainly no proof of the crime, there is nothing he can do.  Antonio and his son are sent off, beaten down.  The growing group of neighbors shove Antonio away, and he staggers down the street ahead of his son, not even aware that his son is nearly hit by a couple of cars (in an unscripted moment).

In the end Antonio is at his wit’s end, and he does the last thing he would ever think of doing: he attempts to steal a bike.  And just like when his bike was stolen, there is an immediate commotion.  Almost instantly, after Antonio hops on a loose bike, the owner runs out onto the street yelling “Thief! Thief! Thief!” and within minutes Antonio is descended upon by a swarm of do-gooders.  Bruno watches helplessly, and Antonio hangs his head in shame, unable or unwilling to protest.  He knows what he did, and he knows there’s nothing else he could do.  The owner of the bike, however, decides to let him go.

Despite the slightly favorable outcome, given the circumstances, Antonio is as low as he’s ever been.  He walks alone, even with Bruno by his side, and it’s not until Bruno reaches to hold his hand that Antonio begins to cry, ashamed of how far he’s fallen.

So the film, as a whole, is about one man’s “breaking bad,” moment, in a sense.  Like Walter White, he was the model citizen.  He had a job, a family, and all he wanted was to keep on keeping on.  If there were greater powers holding him down in the world, he didn’t care or didn’t notice.  But then due to circumstances slightly out of his control, he loses something and is put on a journey downward, like a test from God to see how far he will go and still hold onto himself.

By the end, of course, Antonio lets go and breaks the rules.  In doing so he, I suppose, becomes broken himself, and the lasting image is a guy, blending into the gray mass of people around him, who tried to do everything right and was left a shadow of himself.  There’s no winning this game.

There is a scene midway through the film when Antonio, following a brief fight with his son, takes Bruno to a restaurant to cheer him up.  It’s a moment that reminded me of Life is Beautiful (1997), the Roberto Benigni film in which Benigni’s character continually tries to cheer up his son in the face of the horrifying realities of the world, in that case the Holocaust.

Here Antonio sets aside the mission to get his bike back, and all he wants is to cheer up his son with a good meal.  In the restaurant, though, Bruno can’t help but look over his shoulder at the wealthy family eating a large table full of food.  That family has their own kid Bruno’s age, a real grating-looking ‘mightier than thou’ type of kid.  Great casting.  It took me one second to hate this kid, even if Bruno didn’t look at him with hate but with a little envy.  Sensing Bruno’s thoughts, Antonio tells him that they would have to be much more wealthy to be able to eat like that.

Bruno’s response is to set down his food, hoping to ease his father’s financial burden, but his father insists that he eat.  So part of the story is Antonio’s efforts to protect his son from the financial realities of their life.  They’re middle to lower class, but he doesn’t want this to mean anything to his son, at least not yet.

So maybe Bicycle Thieves is partially a coming of age story.  By the end Bruno certainly has an idea of what kind of truths the real world holds.  He’s seen it first hand, and in some ways he seems even more ready for the world than his father.  The ‘game’ broke Antonio, and it affected Bruno too.  The only reason it didn’t break Bruno, perhaps, is that he’s not old enough.  Someday it might get him too.

Bicycle Thieves is a somber film that provides no real hope for the characters or the audience.  There are a few surprising moments of humor (including a brief search through a church for the thief), but for the most part the film is about various degrees of desperation.  It’s one man’s mission to become whole again, and by the end, even if he’s less than he once was, maybe he finally gets there.

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