Another Criterion pick: The Bicycle Thief is realistic desperation



The Bicycle Thief, directed by Vittorio de Sica, was filmed on the streets of Italy in 1948 using mostly non-actors and Roman street settings. Considered a classic of “neorealism” the film is a social commentary on the effects of poverty and defeat. The economy has tanked, and the nation is recovering from Mussolini and from being on the losing end of World War II. De Sica points an unwavering lens on the reality of soup lines, unemployment, tight apartments in decaying neighborhoods, stressed, reactive sniping and scrambling for position. Everywhere there is evidence of a fraying, hungry culture.

In the first scene  two men get jobs while dozens of others do not. In a world where jobs and opportunities are limited, when one man acquires a job, or a bicycle, another is deprived of an opportunity. This desperate economic state  puts individuals in competition against one another for the limited resources. Desperate times seem to call for desperate measures.

After his good fortune in acquiring a job requiring a bicycle, Antonio and his family pawn household items to buy his bicycle out of hock. It looks like Antonio’s family is finally going to rise above the daily fight for survival, but his first day on the job his bicycle is stolen. Determined to run down the thief, Antonio, his son Bruno, and some friends start looking at a market that is something like a chop shop for bicycles. Eventually his friends tell him that it’s too late to keep looking. Bruno and Antonio persist against all odds, with Antonio growing more and more desperate and angry. 

The journey takes them to a political gathering, a brothel, a church, and a sports arena, places men go to find relief from feeling helpless or hopeless. Antonio barely notes the locations nor does he acknowledge the stressed existence of the people he encounters there. He is intent on finding the bicycle, the key to financial relief for his family. Antonio wants his bicycle back and he wants the thief to pay. He calls the police on two occasions when he thinks he’s located the thief but there is no evidence and no bicycle, though Antonio feels certain he can identify the thief and another man who is either a witness or accomplice. 

In the few moments of respite from the search for the bicycle, de Sica places contrasting realities that reiterate the theme of limited resources. Antonio and Bruno share a meager restaurant meal they can’t afford but in the background a wealthy family enjoys a table laden with food. Antonio embraces Bruno at a bridge after hearing a boy has drowned, while another child lies dead or near dead nearby.

The Bicycle Thief demonstrates how focus on self-preservation produces anger and selfishness. Frustration and outrage over the inability to provide for his family pushes a man to abandon his moral code. Growing frustration finally pushes him over the edge. Unable to locate his own bicycle, Antonio steals another. He is chased and caught by it’s owner and a pack of his angry friends, beaten and turned over to the police. When Antonio is the victim he wants vengeance, but when he is the perpetrator, he wants mercy. This is the human condition.

This is the undignified humiliation that need produces. At the climax Antonio is seen in a way he has not seen others, as a fellow human being struggling against the common enemy of poverty. His desperation  is understandable. It is forgivable. Antonio is offered the forgiveness he was not prepared to convey. Anger gives way to acceptance. This film doesn’t offer resolution so much as resignation and a subtle redemption.

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