Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Released in 1948, “The Bicycle Thief” (or the more literal translation, “Bicycle Thieves” – though I prefer the original interpretation) is quite possibly the most famous piece of Italian cinema ever produced. If not such, then it certainly comes a close second to Fellini’s “8 1/2”. (More on that film soon… probably.) It has more often than not made the Top 10, Top 25, Top 100, (and so on and so forth) list of all time greatest movies ever, by critics, and even more impressively, other filmmakers. In other words, before even getting the chance to watch this film I was completely under the impression that it could be nothing short of a masterpiece. Usually when my expectations outweigh my knowledge of a film, the expectations get the better of me and I end up severely disappointed. I’m happy to say that this wasn’t the case with “The Bicycle Thief”. It really is as good as everyone makes it out to be.
The one thing you need to know about this film going in, is that it is a neorealistic film. In other words, it tries to represent the beauty and drama of everyday life. It’s absolutely not a piece of escapism. Do not expect to be “entertained” in the usual sense of the word. If following around a father and his young son through the streets of Rome as they search for a bicycle doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then you might as well just stop reading this now.
Okay, now that pretty much everybody has stopped reading, I can talk a little more about the film with the clear knowledge that nobody is reading what I’m saying. (What can I say, I’m shy.)
I think that what sets “The Bicycle Thief” apart from other films, both neorealistic and not, is its heart. Every character openly wears their emotions on the cuff of their sleeve. (Which might have to do with where the film was made more than anything else, because it’s certainly an Italian trait if I’ve ever come to know one.) There are no ulterior motives or plot twists at work here. A man needs his bike to keep his job and keep his family fed and sheltered. His bike is stolen and he goes looking for it with the help of his son. The film never gets more complicated than that. But all the same, through the expert staging and fantastic acting, the film is one of the funniest and heart-wrenching pieces of fiction that you will ever see. The film offers up a very definitive moral understanding of human nature and doesn’t shy away from this perception at all. Life is tough, but in between all that toughness there is levity, laughter, love, and genuine moments of happiness. Brief as all those may be. That one film is capable of summing all of this up in under 90 minutes of screen time is a miracle all its own. But that it does so so effectively is an example of something else, true artistry.