Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Bicycle Thief

Bringing the spirit of Italian Neorealism alive, Vittorio De Sica created a masterpiece in 1948 that stands historic even today. The Bicycle thief starrs Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiolo as his son.

Unemployed, and desperately in need of work, Antonio is extremely happy when he is offered a job of pasting posters on the walls of the streets. The only condition is that he needs to have a bicycle. With his wife’s support, they sell their bedsheets to redeem their bicycle from the pawnbroker. Here we see how a man takes the bundle of bedsheets and goes up a towering wall of shelves to stack it with other bundles. So many bundles. So many people’s futures.

Unfortunately, Antonio’s bicycle gets stolen and we are taken on a journey with him across the streets and sounds of Rome, to find his bicycle. Here we see how the movie is structured episodically. Antonio goes to a theatre rehearsal to meet a trusted friend, who in his part time, works as an actor. He also sees the proceedings of a meeting where a communist leader is comforting the unemployed and gives them hope of finding jobs.

The father, son and their trusted friend head out to a bicycle market where all the bicycle parts are gathered and sold. The market is so vast and there are so many options that it’s impossible to locate their bicycle. The father and son team don’t give up hope. The father miraculously spots the thief in a distance and runs behind him to a brothel, and a fight ensues at the end of the chase. The father, in desperation, ends up stealing a bicycle himself. A very powerful ending.

De Sica’s use of non-actors worked wonders for the film. The character of Antonio, played by Lamberto who was a factory worker, brought out the realistic makeup of his character- one who is faced with life’s most difficult times. Post war, Italy was in shatters – economically and morally. We see the real conditions of the people who lived then, in poverty and desperation. When Antonio goes into the house of the accused, we are exposed to the living condition of the working class at that time. A bare minimal existence.

The father and son relationship is critical in the characterization of the two. They are two men on a mission. The child has clearly lost his childhood, and he is a little man, who needs to be able to meet life’s situations. There are several instances where we see the son is left to fend for himself while the father expects him to follow suit or simply be his equal partner. The little boy, however, is a child after all and we see this side of him come out in vulnerable situations, like when he cries when his father slaps him.

Vittorio shows religion in a matter-of-fact way. He seems to be non judgmental, but I find layers in his portrayal of it. He shows the Church having an overbearing control over the poor, who come for mass to get one square meal at the end of the sermon. The old man says “I sat through the service. I’m entitled to the soup.” So what happens to faith in God and the purpose of attending a sermon? Marx was right in saying “Religion is the opium of the masses”. How I see this statement come true in the film is, in two ways. One where the poor accept their miserable state and go to church for comfort and consolation. The other where people follow a faith unofficially – that of the fortuneteller. Their faith in her is blind, in spite of knowing what the outcome of meeting her might be.

It’s all a question of being a part of the system. A system of institutional control. Be it the Church, the police, the fortuneteller or the brothel. The brothel acts as the extreme opposite of the Church, yet ironically similar in its institutional functioning. Here, the services provided may not be considered “moral” but upholds its own standard of systemmatic control. The police again, will help you only if your problem is worth considering. A poor man’s bicycle falls as the least important. Antonio is sent away to look for it himself.

Antonio is a troublemaker in these settings because his behaviour is erratic. He is not “normal” because he broke the “peace” of the Church. They immediately want him out. But what crossed my mind is - who is more righteous? A man fighting to find his stolen bicycle or someone trying to exert power over the other for no miserable cause? Living in harmony with each other is only tolerated. These institutions contribute in creating an altruistic society.

The last scene, with its long takes, gives us a 360ยบ view with a sweeping range of wide angles from different points of views. With the musical structure building, and the spatial design transforming to create a tense atmosphere with a conclusive theme music, the finale is no doubt, the most captivating scene in the film. The wide frame into which the father and son walk with the rest of the crowd is the most symbolic where we see the Director’s way of telling us that what we just witnessed is one story out of so many that happen everyday in the city of Rome.

The film beautifully depicts how desperation for a living can mean so much to someone in a particularly miserable state that it can push even the purest of men into crime. But who is left with a choice when living conditions are so hard, that one must not only fight to find a job, but also fight against all the unsocial elements that are out there to rob you of your happiness?

The movie reminded me of the Pursuit of Happyness, directed by Gabriele Muccino where Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith), questions the word Happiness. Why do we need to “pursue” it? Like it’s a constant battle to get it, the process which is the pursuit - a running after. Running after a thief who stole your most valuable possessions, or running the streets to reach a place on time. The film resembles The Bicycle thief in narrating the story of a father and a son, who are united in their mission of finding happiness. Like Antonio explains to his son, how happy they would be if they had the cycle and they could earn enough to eat and live well. Chris is in a similar battle against odds to prove himself and get through the route (the Pursuit) to find happiness.

The Bicycle Thief, more correctly The Bicycle Thieves is a narration of pushing the limits to find what matters most and how poverty leads to crime which only breeds more crime.

Watch it to understand the story of common man after the War, and his battle to come to terms with economic, social, political and moral systems of society.


  1. Religions provide a catalogue of how to conduct oneself for good with belief in god who created all. Men like anything else have corrupted it too for his selfish ends. Religious belief works as a solace to the miseries of the poor as well as the rich, because it is related to belief, and belief is related to mind, to intellect and SELF (athma), undermining the material existence. If you see religion in this perspective may be it is easier to understand.

    Basic needs for survival have to be met first for a peaceful mind to reckon with ceremonial religioun... but religion is not ceremonies, only we have made it look like. Even at the pursuit of happiness the path shall be righteous, otherwise happiness is not found; and happiness is not result of materialistic abundance.

    This review reminds of a recent malayalam movie "Culcutta News" where a journalist is drawn into the underworld of red streets of culcutta in pursuit of his kidnapped lover, exposing the pathetic conditions of inmates, their children, crime, and all that miseries of underprivileged.

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    Religion through the ages, has been a systemmatic use of power over individuals of a society who are tamed into believing certain "truths" which if not followed would lead to punishment. If one does not learn to accept one's condition, then he does not have faith in God, because God puts us where we are for a reason. In the film, te Church is shown as a metaphor of power, where the economically backword are lured to church, with a promise of food at the end of the sermon. So the question is, is there real faith? Why do the poor continue being poor and helpless, when equality can be established with equal distribution of wealth? Since this equality does not exist and institutions control the activities of the people, poverty continues to thrive.

  3. Beautiful review. Your exegesis of the film is remarkable - as insightful and enlightening as the film itself.

    This is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and viscerally affecting films that I have watched - a movie that has not aged at all over the years. This was also probably my first foray into Italian Neo-realism - which has become one of my favourite film movements.

    I would love to see you review more such poetic and enduring films from this genre. Keep up the great work!

  4. @Nabil: Thanks for your encouraging comments. This is the first film I watched that introduced me into Italian Neo-Realism too. Very thoughtfully laid out, it no doubt leaves an indelible mark on the viewer's psyche.

  5. Wonderful illustrated information. I thank you about that. No doubt it will be very useful for my future projects. Would like to see some other posts on the same subject! snorfiets kopen