Bicycle Thieves – Vittorio De Sica (1948)

Bicycle Thieves, or Ladri Di Biciclette in its original Italian title, is a genre defining and trend setting film by maverick Italian director Vittorio De Sica. Its importance to the Italian Neo-Realism movement is unquestionable but it seems that more discourse is raised about its influence on later films than the actual content itself these days. Its gritty coating means that it spearheads the Neo-Realism movement confidently but it’s the longing and the desperation played out in its narrative that lies at the heart of the film’s success.

Perhaps due to our current age of mass unemployment and brutal dog-eat-dog mentality, Bicycle Thieves seems completely in touch with today’s reality. The protagonist is an unemployed man named Antonio who finds some luck when a job offer comes his way. However a stipulation of the job is that he must own a bicycle to go from place to place putting up cinema posters.

After scraping together as much money as he can, he purchases a bicycle and gets the job, which promises to make life a lot easier for both him and his wife and son. The drama unfolds as his bicycle is stolen and Antonio’s searches for it provide the bulk of the drama as he is gradually forced over the edge into potential unemployment yet again. The film is a bleak metaphor for a battered and run down society stuck within a loop of affluence and poverty. British Social Realism of the 1960s and onward brought these ideas nearer to home but it is here where the first truly honest show of the poor worker’s desperation is depicted.

Post-war Italy looks and feels oppressive yet there’s a great beauty that shines through the bleakness on display. There’s the obviously gorgeous mise-en-scène but really it is the narrative that provides the true moments of splendour ranging from Antonio taking his son for a massive meal even though it’s clear he can’t afford it or perhaps even the dramatic and sad ending where Antonio is forced to steal a bicycle himself but is caught through his own lack of will and burden of honesty. The final moments of the film are further draped in tragedy as Antonio’s son watches his father get caught by a mob and abused for being a thief even though Antonio has always pledged honesty as a way of life. It’s a heart breaking dénouement to a film not shy about showing the darker side of a capitalist society.

The Arrow release contains only one extra worthy of note, which is its documentary on Vittrio De Sica, but this is a release that is sold on the quality of the print and film rather than hours of extras. The documentary itself is an interesting affair and a perfect research piece for those involved in the study of film and Italian Neo-Realism.

Bicycle Thieves is a film as relevant today as it was when it was made in 1948, perhaps revealing a depressing truth that our a society is still governed by wealth and the people at the bottom will always be forced to resort to the most desperate of measures, even ones that go against their own personal and moral beliefs.

Adam Scovell

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