In his introductory notes to Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), playwright Arthur Miller prefaced the 1948 film by saying, “It is as though the soul of a man had been filmed.” Focusing on the plight of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a poor, working-class Everyman in post-war Italy, the plot of Bicycle Thieves follows a stolen bicycle and its effects on the hopes and dreams of a family.
Early in the film, we see Antonio’s wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pawning her dowry bedsheets; De Sica’s camera follows the sheets as they are placed on an upper shelf alongside hundreds of others. It’s one of the most heartbreaking images in a film full of them, illustrating not only the problems of the film’s protagonists, but also of Italy’s working class following the end of the Second World War. The truths of Bicycle Thieves are dark and brutal.
Following the theft of his bicycle, proud father Antonio does his best to hide the inevitable from his wife and son Bruno (the terrific Enzo Staiola). No bike means no job and there are thousands of other men with bicycles willing to plaster the colourful posters of a smiling Rita Hayworth on Rome’s cracked walls.
Heralding the emergence of cinematic neo-realism on the international scene, Bicycle Thieves captured the European mindset in the shadow of war, but also arguably transformed that continent’s approach to film. With nuanced portrayals of true-to-life characters in real-life situations, De Sica’s tragedy plays out as messy and as disappointing as reality gets, an uncommon sight in cinema before Thieves was released.
Filming on the streets of Rome, De Sica’s realistically drawn characters interact with the actual populace of the time, an obvious precursor to the French New Wave’s similar search for realism on celluloid. But where the cameras of the French auteurs of the 1960s wandered the stylish streets of bohemian Paris, the city on view in Bicycle Thieves is one of dirty hallways, un-kempt buildings and slouching silhouettes walking from one dead-end place to the next.
Miller continued, “This picture, perhaps above all others, performs the central function of art. Without warping the life it depicts, it discovers the meaning of that life, its significance for the race.” As powerful now as it was when it was released, Bicycle Thieves is one of the cinema’s crowning achievements, a statement of purpose and transition that’s also an unforgettable and universal story beautifully told.