Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is consistently ranked in lists of the greatest films ever made. The Italian movie has influenced generations of directors, actors and cinematographers. It is one of the most identifiable Italian films, no mean feat given the number of classics that have rolled out of that country over the years.
Why? De Sica didn’t invent Italian neo-realism, the movement under which his film is classified, and which describes dramas about the challenges faced by urban working-class and indigent characters. De Sica wasn’t the first Italian director to move out of the sets and into real locations, use non-professional actors or examine the emotional price of poverty. Yet, Bicycle Thieves endures into its 75th year of existence and holds up on repeat viewings. As a portrait of precariousness, few films match its raw power and unexpected beauty.
The 89-minute movie is available on MUBI. Bicycle Thieves is set in Rome after World War II. Amidst bombed-out buildings, new tenements that still being built and masses of unemployed people, Antonio manages to find a job pasting advertising bills.
The proviso: he will need to use his cycle. When his cycle gets stolen, Antonio, accompanied by his son Bruno, embarks on a desperate hunt for it.
The simple plot is filmed in a life-like fashion that remains astonishing. Bicycle Thieves is one of the few movies that feels more like a documentary with fictional elements rather than a feature.
Carlo Montuori’s highly mobile camera captures the escalating anguish on the faces of Antonio and Bruno as well as details of Rome’s neighbourhoods, public squares and repurposed bicycle market that Antonio visits along his journey. We are right in the heart of the action, following the father and son on their quest or running along with them when they think they have found the bicycle. Life and cinema are so closely intermeshed it is hard to tell them apart.
The use of amateur actors creates a verisimilitude that makes the devastation all the more believable. Both Antonio and Bruno are played by a factory worker and a boy whom De Sica spotted in a crowd. (They went to become professional actors.) Their fleeting moments of joy and their tears appear to be as unconstructed as the everyday drama they encounter on the way. Their performances are unvarnished, coming out a deep core of understanding. Rome, teeming with too many people like Antonio, is itself a character.
This human document, whose technical aspects can still teach us a thing or two about filmmaking, has empathy, rugged poetry, and an underlying note of anger that continues to resound. The movie was an instant classic in its time and will be one in all likelihood for all time.