Film Review: The Struggle And Hope In “The Bicycle Thieves”

By Armando Inquig

In “The Bicycle Thieves,” the harrowing reality of post-war Italy is laid bare. Released during a time of economic hardship in 1948, the film reflects the stark reality of the ruins of war. Directed by Vittorio De Sica, “The Bicycle Thieves” is a cornerstone of Italian neorealism, and often cited as one of the best films ever made.

The film follows Antonio Ricci, luckless yet optimistic in post-war Rome. He is unemployed and desperate for work to support his family. His fortunes seemingly improve when he lands a job that requires a bicycle for posting advertising bills. His wife, Maria, pawns their bed linen to retrieve their pawned bicycle, and Antonio starts work, filled with renewed hope.

However, while at work, hoisting an advertising up a ladder, Antonio’s bicycle is snatched by a man. He chases the thief but loses him in the busy urban sprawl.

Antonio, along with his son Bruno, then sets out to search for the bicycle, which sets off a series of misadventures.

Their search leads them through various districts of Rome, and its economic and social diversity. They visit a market where stolen goods are, but they don’t find the bicycle. Desperation soon sets in as Antonio’s hope starts to dwindle. They encounter an old man who might know the thief’s whereabouts. They follow the suspect to his neighborhood. Antonio then accuses the man, but the suspect is released by the police as there is no proof. As Antonio and Bruno navigate the city, the day wanes and with it Antonio’s virtues.

In a moment of utter despair, he attempts to steal a bicycle himself. He is caught and humiliated in front of a crowd and, most importantly, in front of his son Bruno. The owner, seeing father and son’s distress, chooses not to press charges, and they are released.

“The Bicycle Thieves” culminates with Antonio and Bruno walking hand in hand, swallowed by the crowd, their future as uncertain as when the day began. The bicycle, and the hope it represented, remains lost to them.

De Sica’s portrayal of Antonio’s plight, his fallibility under the shadow of poverty, reflects a universal struggle against societal indifference.

“The Bicycle Thieves” is a poignant depiction of the human condition, a narrative that reaches beyond the constraints of time and place to echo the enduring spirit and trials of humanity.

The Criterion Collection recently released Bicycle Thieves in Blu-ray earlier this year. The 4K digital restoration is a special edition release that includes the previously released documentary from 2003 on screenwriter and longtime De Sica collaborator Cesare Zavattini, directed by Carlo Lizzani.