Blog Directory CineVerse: The wheel deal

The wheel deal

Monday, June 7, 2021

Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves never ages, never overstays its welcome, never fails to hit a bullseye in the center of the chest. These qualities are a testament to the unimpeachable quality of a film consistently voted one of the very finest ever made, one ripe for rediscovery every few years.

Our CineVerse group gripped the handlebars and took a ride on this 73-year-old movie last week, and we found that it was just like riding a bike—you simply don’t forget how to enjoy a timeless classic. An outline of our discussion points is found below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here; to listen to a Cineversary podcast episode celebrating this picture’s 70th birthday, click here).

What did you find interesting, memorable, distinctive, or different about Bicycle Thieves?

  • There is not much action or plot: This is a very simple but effective narrative that evokes a strong emotional reaction in viewers primarily from its visual poetry and nonverbal storytelling.
  • The actors playing the father and son, as well as nearly everyone else in the cast, are not professionals—these are just everyday people. Yet, marvel at how expressive their faces are and how natural their acting—or nonacting, in this case—is.
  • The character of the stalwart and compassionate Bruno, the son, and what we see him observe and react to, is what helps lend the film extra power and resonance.
  • The picture attempts to make a political statement—that we should be more concerned with our fellow man and that a fairer political system should exist that provides greater opportunities to everyday people. Yet the film is not so much about the hardships of poverty or the quest to reclaim a stolen bike but rather the relationship between a father and his boy.
    • Ultimately, Bicycle Thieves succeeds and impacts us so strongly because we identify and sympathize with Antonio and Bruno, even though they don’t overemote or speechify. We see them as they truly are, and it is their behavior and unspoken actions that inform us about them. Antonio is taken down a peg in front of his son, which is heartbreaking and universally appreciated, regardless of the time, place, or ethnicity.

What elements of Italian neorealism are prevalent in Bicycle Thieves?

  • Like earlier films in the Italian neorealism subgenre, this picture is shot in near documentary style, on location and often using nonfactors/nonprofessionals.
  • The subjects are typically working-class people and the impoverished.
  • The messages of neorealism films are often bleak, realistic, and plausibly pessimistic—without any sentimentalizing, glossy coating, or tacked-on happy endings. These films don’t give us black and white, good vs. evil tropes: even the young bicycle thief himself is depicted as the victim of poverty and a corrupt, unjust, and misery-inducing political system, and his family defends him.
  • There is a deliberate focus away from big-name stars, complex psychological themes and issues, and intricate plots and action.
  • This film attempts to depict true poverty and economic hardship as it really was in one city at a given time in history: postwar Rome in 1948, which had been physically and economically decimated following the war.
  • Bicycle Thieves is consistent and believable in its approach to realism: There is no contrived happy ending or resolution, and bad things happen to good people. What a great gift that is—the truth.
  • To put the film in proper context, consider that Americans didn’t often get to view pictures about poor people in this clear and close a focus before; even films made during and set in the Great Depression often softened the blow when impoverished characters were showcased, and almost always a happy denouement was included.
    • Charles Burnett, essayist for the Criterion Collection version of this film, wrote: “I was moved by how ordinary people were able to express so much humanity. The story achieved in very simple terms what I was looking to do in film: humanize those watching. (It) has the quality and intention of a documentary. It is totally unromantic. The characters are just ordinary people, and the film gives the impression you are watching life unfold before you. It is entertaining, but that is not the goal. Its goal is to make audiences aware of a particular social condition that needs a political solution. It is clear that it was made as a tool for change.”

What themes or messages are explored in Bicycle Thieves?

  • The power of family unity and love over materialism, capitalism, and suffering.
  • The search for hope and faith (not necessarily religious faith, but perhaps faith in humanity) in a world that seems faithless; consider that Antonio is hunting for a Fides bicycle, with the word “Fides” meaning “faith” in Italian.
  • Social conscience: It’s our duty as neighbors, acquaintances, citizens, and even bystanders to help our fellow human, regardless of his or her social stature.
  • Class struggle: This is a film about the division and disparity among social classes. We are shown how the working poor and bourgeois coexist.

Similar films

  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Rome, Open City
  • Germany Year Zero
  • Furrows
  • Pather Pachali
  • Nights of Cabiria
  • The 400 Blows
  • Films with cities featured as a major character, including Wings of Desire and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
  • Children of Heaven
  • Rockers
  • Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
  • Children of Heaven
  • Life is Beautiful
  • Beijing Bicycle
  • Kid With a Bike

Other works by De Sica

  • Shoeshine
  • Umberto D
  • The Earrings of Madame de…
  • Two Women

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