The film Bicycle Thieves (original Italian title Ladri di bicyclette) is an emotionally engaging film. Made in 1948 in the aftermath of the Second World War, the film gives a realistic account of war-ravished Italy. The economy is in a bad shape and social fissures are pronounced. There is poverty and misery everywhere. Unemployment levels are also high. It is in this setting that the misfortunes of a poor family are narrated.
The young boy Bruno is central to the plot, although he is always in the shadow of his father’s actions and thoughts. In many ways, the young boy represents a purity and moral fortitude that elders around him have difficulty to master. The young boy accompanies his father through his long, arduous and ultimately futile attempt to locate his stolen bicycle. But throughout these travails, he hardly betrays his immaturity. The poise and understated maturity of young Bruno is pleasing to see. I believe it is upon De Sica’s directorial discretion that Bruno’s character was drawn on those lines. There is one scene in particular where the young boy’s maturity comes to light. It was when his frayed and tired father slaps him on the cheek out of his own inner frustrations. Bruno was hurt and he starts to cry. He moves away from his father and sulks. Yet, when his repentant father comes to him to console and cajole, he does not rebuke him. Instead of playing truant and throwing a tantrum, young Bruno allows his dad to make peace with him. Eventually, his father takes him to a restaurant to buy him a luxurious cake. In a subtle irony, De Sica showcases how the young can sometimes lead the old and display more maturity.
Neo-realist cinema might be passe for modern audiences, but when De Sica gave it full expression in Bicycle Thieves it was fresh and inventive. In fact, poverty as a theme for commercial cinema was thought unviable by many producers. Consequently, De Sica had difficulty garnering funding for his project. The fact of the availability of only a limited funding actually accentuated the neo-realist feel in the film. For example, the lead actors are all amateurs who barely had any acting experience prior to the film. The scenes were all shot on location without using any studio settings. The material reality of poverty was well captured too. After all, it doesn’t require expensive props to execute a film based on the ordeals of poverty. Consistent with the neo-realist style the background music for the film is minimal. The idea is to let the story create its own sense of drama and poignancy without the aid of music. Moreover, an austere production philosophy resonates with the poverty and frugality at display onscreen. (Wakeman, 1988)
The film is good material for philosophical inquiry. In my view, the essence of the film is the last scene where the victim decides to become the victimizer. When Antonio Ricci (the protagonist) decides out of desperation that he would steal a bicycle to recompense what had been stolen from him, the title Bicycle Thieves takes on an added dimension. What was till that point in film a reference to the gang of burglars who steal bicycles and resell them in the market, now includes the aggrieved loser himself. This is a powerful political statement on part of De Sica about the nature of poverty and the evaluation of morality in this economic realm. In other words, the film can be seen as an early exploration on the vicious cycle of poverty and crime. There is little doubt that the director’s take on these twin blights of society are rather sympathetic. This much is evident from the overall tone and effect of the film. In this sense, the film is a powerful social and political comment – something that is apt for further study from sociological perspectives. (Ratner, 2005)
In sum, Bicycle Thieves is an important work in the history of world cinema. Its appeal is universal because its theme is universal and based on humanism. Bicycle Thieves is an intense film that has an underlying engagement with humanist philosophy. The film is morally probing and critical of society. Although it is sixty years past its release date, it holds ample relevance to the present era, what with recurrent economic crises the feature of our times. The film also offers a sympathetic perspective on crime. In this sense, it offers a talking point for social scientists and law makers. Given the sizeable incarceration rates in many industrial societies, there is a strong case for relooking crime and punishment.
Ratner, M. (2005). GreenCine, “Italian Neo-Realism”. Online resource.
Wakeman, J. (1998). World Film Directors, Volume 2. The H. W. Wilson Company. 663-669.