The Bicycle Thieves is generally considered one of the greatest films ever made. It topped the Sight & Sound (often considered the best, or most important of these types of polls) list in 1952, the first time they made a poll. It has since slipped further and further down that list, but it is still highly regarded amongst critics directors and cinephiles.
It has been on my list of films to watch for a very long time, but I’ve always put it off. It has always seemed to me to be a film that would be difficult to watch – in that way important films can sometimes feel like homework. I knew I’d need to be in the right mood to watch it and that mod never seemed to come. It is part of and is often considered the best example of, the Italian Neorealism movement. As the name implies these are films that were designed to be as realistic as possible. They were shot on location, used non-professional actors, were generally about the working class, and dealt with social and political themes.
I am not the biggest fan of the genre. Cinema works best to me when it is, at least somewhat, unrealistic. I don’t necessarily mean it needs to be pure fantasy or science fiction. Simple plots about real people can still bedazzle us with unique camera movements, or music, or stylistic choices. I love the cinematic aspects of cinema and so a more naturalistic handle on the material isn’t as interesting to me. I don’t want to belabor that point, as I could come up with plenty of naturalistic films that I love, but The Bicycle Thieves’ neorealism is one of the things that kept me from watching it.
Like almost every film that is universally beloved, I liked The Bicycle Thieves quite a lot. There is a reason certain films are considered the best of the best, and it is rare that I really dislike any of them. But I definitely didn’t love this one.
The plot is simple. In post-war Italy Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is desperate for work He stands in line with dozens of others every day hoping the employment office will have something for him. On this day it does, he’s offered a job putting up advertisement posters throughout Rome. But he needs a bike, it is necessary for the job.
Antonio has a bike, but it was pawned. His wife tears off the sheets from their bed and folds most of their linen up. They take it to the pawn shop and sell it. The camera follows the worker as he climbs a ladder and places their linen in a huge pile with hundreds of other sheets they have purchased. They use the money to buy back the bike (which likewise is in the shop next to a long line of other bikes. Pawning one’s stuff is necessary for so many just to survive another day.)
She visits a Wise Woman, kind of a fortune teller, to pay her respects since earlier the Woman had told her that he would get a job. Antonio leaves the bike in the street and follows her up. We expect the bike to be gone when he returns but the film is playing with us, the bike is still there. It does get stolen on the first day on the job. While Antonio is putting glue on the poster a young man swipes it.
The rest of the film follows Antonio and his young son as they wander the streets of Rome looking for it. They go to the police but all they can do is take a report. His friend shows him some open-air markets where thieves often try to sell stolen bikes. He eventually runs into the thief but without proof that he stole the bike, there is nothing anyone can do. As the day goes on Antonio gets increasingly desperate and exasperated.
I won’t spoil the ending but the final moments are incredibly moving.
Director Vittorio De Sica shoots the film naturalistically. He shot on location in Rome. All of the actors were not professionals. The camera acts as an observer and there is nothing splashy about any of the filmmaking. It is a simple story told simply. This was startling to audiences at the time who had grown accustomed to the style and glitz of Hollywood films. It was exciting to see a film stripped down to its essence. Or so I’m told. Watching it now, that excitement has been washed away. What we’re left with is a very nice story, one that can be quite moving even. But not one I’ll be voting for as the best ever made.
I will admit that had I watched it in a different way my feelings may be different. Had I watched it in a movie theater where I could pay sole attention to it instead of my bedroom where distractions abounded I might have tuned into its simple pleasures more. Or were I in a different headspace I may have found the story more emotionally engaging. But for now, I can only recognize that it is a good film, but perhaps not entirely for me.