‘Bicycle Thieves’, a 1948 Italian masterpiece by director Vittorio De Sica, introduces us to a simple family struck by the consequences of the second world war, the movie depicting ever-cheerful Ricci and his struggle to find a job to make ends meet. While the premise of the story is simple and the direction of the storyline predictable from its title, the highlight of the movie lies in the relationships that are portrayed and the many struggles of daily living that tug at our hearts.
Portrayed by common men and women with little acting experience and shot in the streets of Rome, the movie echoes the neo-realism movement of the time, that relied on truthful portrayals of the masses to evoke emotions among the audience. Peppered throughout with little instances that aid in the retelling of the conditions of the time, the film uses the symbolism of the stolen bicycle to explore the livelihoods and emotions the loss of the object brings to the family. Using inconspicuous yet poignant comparisons like portraying the family’s decision to prioritise the cycle above their need for the bedsheets they sell to buy it, the film reveals the complex situation they were left to survive through after the war.
From Lamberto Maggiorani’s portrayal of Ricci to the matter-of-fact acting by Enzo Staiola as the son Bruno, the father-son relationship elevates the story to a more emotional space, where the lines between adult and child blur across multiple instances and depict an understanding between them about morality and forgiveness, the theme of the movie no longer one about right and wrong but love and human error. Bruno’s role in the film moves beyond a mere secondary character, the maturity and benign presence he embodies highlighted in his attempt to assist his father and protect his sister. Other characters greatly contribute to the eloquent telling of the story as well, the workers who are instantly ready to replace him, the friend who gathers his forces to help look for the stolen cycle, even the police officer who appears indifferent to the poor man’s plight.
With limited colour but vivid imagery, the movie paints a picture of struggle and conflict, providing subtle contrasts in every scene. The range of emotions is also apparent as the loving couple transition from cheerfully celebrating the purchase of the bicycle into dismay at the loss of it.
Another point of focus for a large part of the film, is the constant activity in the background, filling scenes with movement, emphasising the hustle of the time, busy crowds that go about the city, entirely focused on their own problems. The genius of the director is largely apparent in the structuring of shots, the cinematography a great contributor to the popularity of the film.
The bicycle thief here in this movie is a reference to both protagonist and antagonist, the blurred line between right and wrong a point of earnest importance relevant throughout the history of man. The acclaimed ninety-three-minute film continues to stand the test of time for the very same reason, a champion of filmmaking credited even today, for raising the global standard of storytelling.