Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Bicycle Thief

The Bicycle Thief - Vittorio De Sica

Inspired by the serendipity of a free month on Netflix and a 'foreign' movie reviewing meme on a couple of good blogs I follow (here & here) I decided I would watch some films and write something about them. I thought that I would pick a 'classic' I had never seen to start the ball rolling.

The classic is The Bicycle Thief (a.k.a. Bicycle Thieves). The film is set on the grim streets of post war Rome. Men swarm up an anonymous looking stairs in a high rise building as the credits roll and then fallback as a cigar smoking functionary emerges, descends and calls for Ricci. Someone has to run over to get Ricci who is not paying any attention. When he gets over he is told "You'll hang posters", handed a slip and told to go to the employment office. Disbelievingly he says "My god, a job."  But there is a catch. He will need a bicycle and his is in the repair shop and money will have to be found to redeem it.

Money is short - clothes are worn out, seams are popped and shoes are worn down. The men who aren't called are angry that they are 'left to rot'. The scene brought to mind On The Waterfront - the jobs in the hand of one man who can lord it over many. At first Ricci just curses his bad luck - he won't be able to redeem his bicycle and so the job shall not be his. But his wife is more resourceful and by taking the sheets off their beds manages to raise enough to pay for the bicycle.

 Ricci at the start, seems to project a fragile machismo, his wife and son seem more resourceful, more like survivors. He seems to carry the shame of not fulfilling his role as breadwinner. But the redemption of the bike seems to signal a redemption for him and the glow of pride starts to soften his features and bring out his strength. The same pride and love is evident on the face of his wife and child. The young boy polishes the bike with immense pride, noticing a small dent that wasn't there before. The next morning he sets out with his father - both dressed in overalls.

On his first day at work he is pasting up pictures of Rita Heyworth, and the gulf between his life and 'the movies' is emphasized. But this film doesn't look down on the lives of people struggling to survive. it shows us the epic in the everyday, and could easily be seen as a companion to Joyce's Ulysses. (Main action in one day, journey and return, father & son - Bloom as surrogate father for Dedalus)

Ricci's bicycle is stolen and he has to get it back in order to hold on to his "miraculous" job. The day following the robbery is Sunday and Ricci and his son set out to find the bicycle, firstly with help but finally on their own. They pound the streets - going to markets, mass, a brothel and outside a football stadium. Crowds of people are by turn helpful and inimical to their search. We see bicycles filling the streets like shoals of fish, innumerable parts covering the market stalls. Surely the search is impossible...

The dynamic between father and son is wonderful. The vulnerability of the son is highlighted by the presence of traffic, a child molester and the intermittent threat of violence as they try to find and confront the bicycle thief. I don't want to say much more for fear of revealing too much but if you haven't seen this it's time you did. A testament to the dignity and fragility of the human spirit.


  1. I really would like to watch this. It's a classic and I have only heard good things but somehow never watched it.
    Italian cinema offers great portraits of the lives of "little people" withouth robbing them of their dignity. On the very contrary, I think.
    My last film of that time was Rome, Open City. Very good but bleak.

  2. I almost started my foreign movie-watching rampage with an Italian neorealist classic also, Séamus, but in the end I decided to go with a recent Latin American flick instead. In any event, excellent leadoff choice here in De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, which I appreciated just as much as you seem to have done. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the director's Umberto D is another fine study of the effects of poverty on Italian society--told in a "simple" manner that makes it all the more heart-rending. Anyway, thanks again for participating in the two filmathons--look forward to your upcoming choices!

  3. I love this film; was taken with the stark documentary style realism and, of course, the heartbreaking father/son dynamic (which was kind of echoed later in 'Cinema Paradiso'). Loved it so much that I named my first album (as Miracle Mile) 'Bicycle Thieves'.
    I remember doing an interview with 'Mountain Bike Monthly' at the time, who were reviewing the album because it had the word 'bicycle' in the title... it wish it were that easy these days...

    1. @Trevor - Well that explains why Half Orphan (my one foray into the album market) got so little press. I should have called it Vintage Tractors, or Poultry Farming!