The Bicycle Thief
Vittoria de Sica’s classic 1947 film, The Bicycle Thief, has probably been written about more than any other film in history. At one time, film audiences considered it to be the best film ever made; unfortunately, it has slipped off the charts in recent times.
I have longed maintained that films consistently use visual and auditory images as stories in and of themselves. They often become complementary social plots replete with cultural values and world-view perceptions. The central story line in many classic films becomes more than just ornamented with these visual and auditory images, it often becomes a kind of call-and-response complement to the less evident images of a film.
In The Bicycle Thief, the central narrative is not difficult to follow: a man takes a job that requires a bicycle. He redeems his bike from a pawn shop after his wife pawns the sheets that were part of her dowry. On his first day as a poster-hanger, his bike is stolen by a local thug we later find out is part of a neighborhood gang.
At least three men set up the robbery, the same men we can assume are part of the neighborhood where Antonio eventually tracks down the thief. A local policeman convinces Antonio that the neighborhood would come to the boy’s defense. Despondent and resigned to his fate, Antonio leaves the village with his son.
In a moment of desperation, Antonio attempts to steal a bike but is caught. After the owner chooses not to press charges, Antonio walks off with his mortified son into a crowd of pedestrians.
Except for the city mission scene, a restaurant scene when Antonio and Bruno share mozzarella and bread, and some momentary drama when Antonio reports the theft at a local police station, DeSica wisely chooses not to derail the plot with any other extended sub-plots; however, the film is saturated with visual and oral social commentaries that tell us much about post-World II Italy. In a very real sense, the film is a kind of social documentary of Italian culture and society in the 1940s.
Poverty, a favorite neorealist motif, dominates the film. In choosing to use the central plot of a desperate man trying to hold on to a job that requires a bicycle, the film expands that desperation by including a neighborhood ring involved in stealing, clearly presenting a strong case for the relationship between a poverty-driven existence and an illegal underground-economy in hard times.
In the opening scene, we are presented with a group of frustrated unemployed workers waiting to here about job openings. Antonio seems to be one of the few workers who is not a bricklayer and is given the opportunity to take a poster-hanging job which requires that he have a bicycle.
In another scene, we follow Antonio and Maria, his wife, back to their small apartment. They are carrying two pales of water gotten from a barrel in the center of the village (running water was still a luxury in the village).
Their apartment is ruthlessly spare. It is difficult not to see DeSica’s attempt to conflate the harsh realities of poverty in the image of a pair of underwear hanging from an outside clothes line and the icon of suffering in the crucifix over the couple’s bed. DeSica is not so kind when he later presents a mission scene where the local poor have to attend a Mass before being fed—a scene that becomes even more sardonic when Antonio tries to bribe and blackmail a member of the village ring into telling him where the young thief lives.
If one adds up the old hustler’s question about what the mission menu is, combined with the bribery money and the prayers being said by the locals during the mission Mass, it is not difficult to believe that DeSica was casting a cynical eye on how colonialist religion can be when your stomach’s growling.
DeSica’s lens also makes a strong case for the economic disparities between the well-dressed mission leaders and the tawdry clothes of the local poor. DeSica’s cynicism must have been equally fermenting at the notion of God profiting from the poor embracing “the trials of our lives,” a line from one of the prayers at the Mass.
Not unlike the more modern instant-checks-cashed-here urban store fronts, pawn shops are not one of the luxuries of a gated community. And Antonio and Maria’s village requires pawn shops to survive. Antonio had to pawn his bike for food and Maria pawned her dowry sheets (DeSica extends this poverty narrative as the camera slowly follows one of the pawn-shop workers up the long rows of other pawned sheets).
Poverty also requires extraordinary means to survive. Smaller communities often band together to take advantage of a society that is economically destitute. If honest jobs are scarce, a subaltern community often wrests economic power from the larger society or competes with it for its own ends. Unlike an underground, black-market economy driven by some kind of bartering system, crime-infested economic communities establish their own rules and keep members of the larger society in some form of an asymmetrical social relationship.
The trio of thieves obviously steal from others in order to survive. As criminal predators, they maintain their power by their secrecy, their deftness, and their own bonding (sharing of the profits is clear when one of the thieves gives the old hustler his “split”). Their activities also seem to have some form of societal approval when a policeman remarks that the villagers will come to the defense of one of the young thieves if Antonio were to press charges against the boy.
The santona is just another economic predator as she uses the illusion of her preternatural powers to predict destinies. When people have no resources of their own, they will defer to those who claim special powers. The clairvoyant certainly takes advantage of the villagers by giving the locals hope and despair, and, to add to her callousness, with equal indifference (DeSica’s camera is relentless as it watches the santona pull back in disdain while Antonio passes the money to her assistant after he asks here about his stolen bicycle. She becomes a parody of herself as she prefaces her con game with her hypocritical prayer, “Dear God, bless me with light”).
DeSica’s poverty-conscious voices come in various decibel levels throughout the film. In one scene, Antonio comes upon a group of unemployed men listening to a social activist lecturing them about the humiliation of taking a “welfare check” that, as he says, “doesn’t help things get any better.” He makes what seems to be a lame promise, “You can be sure that we’ll do our best to get you a job.”
In another scene, Bruno, Antonio’s pre-adolescent son, is taken to work at a gas station early in the morning. Later on in the film, an older male predator tries to seduce the young boy (In this parenthetical narrative, the viewer is brutally confronted with the power-leverage of the privileged over the economically defenseless).
In one of the last scenes, Antonio chases the thief into a brothel, another poverty-driven institution when women are abandoned to their poverty and left few options to survive (It would be a mistake, however, to think that the DeSica’s lens shows any outrage at the women’s plight; they appear to be more bacchanalian than victims).
DeSica’s film also makes it very clear that poverty requires queus of interminable length: lines for too few buses; crowds of men waiting to hear of job openings; lines of people waiting to be fed as they stand outside a church mission; lines of desperate pilgrims waiting for their chance to hear their fortunes from a psychic.
When poverty strikes, waiting is the foyer to Hell as the desperate wait anonymously for a morsel of food from a church or a thin slice of hope from a clairvoyant.
DeSica is a master at creating searing images of economic destitution and human beings at their worst. The only cathartic redemption the director gives us occurs in one of the last shots. The father and son are holding hands as they walk through a crowd of anonymous urban pedestrians. It is a dignified and humane act between a father and a son reaching quietly out to each other in an act of fragile love.