Bicycle Thieves (Day 2)

The Bicycle Thieves

My Opinion: 7.3 || You go into a movie like this expecting sad, but what kind of sad? Dreary sad, tear-jerker sad, despair-for-humanity sad? Turns out it’s a better form of sad than any of those — it’s vibrant sad.

Title: Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette)
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Language: Italian| Country: Italy
Year: 1948
Profile: Drama | 93 minutes | IMDb: 8.4

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix):  Poverty-stricken Antonio needs his bicycle to do his new job. But the same day he buys it back from a pawnshop, someone steals it, prompting him to search the city in vain with his young son.

Why do I say “vibrant sad?” Crucially, there are no moments of cruelty or outright tragedy in the film. Even the thieves (whom we never really see) are an impersonal force. When he’s momentarily terrified that his son has been killed, the director pulls away to show the son waiting where he’d been told to wait. No one is trying to hurt him, including the director. It’s just that no one can help him either.

Time and again, the institutions of society fail him. The unemployment office gives him a job, but they’re no match to the level of need around them, and they’re unswerving in the demand that he have a bicycle. After the bike is stolen, the police do their jobs with differing levels of enthusiasm, but their capacity to help is limited. The Church feeds the poor and gives shaves and haircuts, but when he tries to confront someone who may be responsible, the church only winds up getting in his way.

Best Scene: The end. Very powerful emotionally and morally. After struggling and struggling to play by the rules and find what belongs to him so that his family can eat, he sees all these hundreds of unattended bicycles. It would be so easy to take one. They’re unattended because everyone is watching a football match — entertaining themselves while he’s drowning. It would be so easy, and doesn’t he need (and deserve) a bicycle at least as much as anyone else?

Bicycle Thieves

He sends his son away on the tram so that he won’t have to see what happens, but the son misses the tram and returns in time to see his father steal a bicycle — only to be caught. After failing again and again to band together for him, they band together to catch him. (All the times when he says, “Stop — thief” but no one stops the thief.) Again, the director steps away from cruelty; the owner of the bike lets him go, leaving him alone with his guild. (It’s not a story of persecution; it’s a story of abandonment.) He’s a good man who’s tried to do right, and now he’s facing destitution and has lost his dignity and moral standing.

Best Element: The city of Rome. Compare this to the typical sound-stage film of that period. Nearly every scene is shot on location, and many of the actors seem like genuine Romans — so many great faces and Italian gestures and inflections. As compelling as the increasingly desperate Antonio is, Rome may come out as Bicycle Thieves best character.

Biggest Problem: Hard to say. It’s not a slow movie or soporifically bleak. However, I woke up early to watch the movie and admit to getting very sleepy about 40 minutes in. My attention didn’t waver, and I never felt impatient, but there are moments of how-can-this end-well despair (one bicycle in all of Rome) that makes it a struggle.

File Under:  realism, naturalism, social critique, vibrantly sad, cities, dignity, despair, crime