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150 Films #13: The Bicycle Thief [Ladri di biciclette] (1948)

I’ve made a number of cracks at this essay. It turns out a film with such a brief running time and simple story asks too many profound questions. Without a heavy hand or any pompous philosophizing, the story of a man who needs to recover his stolen bike in order to keep a job he desperately needs manages to ask the following:

  • Does faith, religious or otherwise, serve any purpose or have any value?
  • How can a man with nothing deal with the consequences of a thief literally stealing his livelihood?
  • To what extent does poverty fuel desperate, criminal behavior?
  • What purpose does a criminal justice system serve when it has little interest in criminals or justice?
  • Does a man who can’t provide for his family have any purpose? (This is a bit dated but still a relevant concern for many men.)
  • How can a man who can’t provide for his family—or himself, for that matter—set a good example for his children?
  • Is one man’s desperate story any more important than anyone else’s?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg, and the ones I find most interesting. One thing I love about The Bicycle Thief is that Vittorio De Sica (and his many screenwriters) ask question after philosophical question, but they leave it to the audience to answer them. The film acts as a Rorschach inkblot for viewers, which is not to say the film itself is abstract or experimental in any way. It tells a very straightforward story, but to describe the plot is to merely say what happens in the film; it tells you nothing about what The Bicycle Thief is about.

The plot is important, though. The way De Sica sets up Antonio’s (Lamberto Maggiorani) desperation is absolutely essential. When offered a job that requires a bicycle, a dejected Antonio turns it down because he can’t afford to get his bike out of hock. The crowd of unemployed men surrounding him beg to take the job in his place, so Antonio agrees to take it—knowing he must find a way to get a bike. His wife insists that they pawn their dowry linens in order to get the bike back; this job is more important than their prized possession.

What can we say about Antonio’s faith at the beginning of the film? When we first see him, he’s loafing down the street from job-seekers. Not because he’s lazy; he’s given up hope. He has no faith. His bicycle, the fictional Fides brand, is named for the Roman goddess of good faith. This is the bike he pawned until he needed it, because at this point food and shelter are more important than faith. After getting a little extra scratch from the dowry sheets, Maria (Lianella Carell) insists on paying a psychic who predicted Antonio would find work. Antonio mocks Maria for believing the psychic and talks her out of paying what she owes.

But I wouldn’t call this the story of a faithless man regaining his faith. Late in the film, for no other reason than frantic desperation, Antonio returns to the psychic and begs for a prediction about his bicycle. It’s not that he’s recovered any semblance of faith he might have once had, any more than it’s about superstition over not paying the psychic for predicting he would find this job; Antonio is simply at his wit’s end. It is, perhaps, telling that shortly before returning to the psychic, Antonio disrupts a Sunday mass by badgering an elderly man he saw talking to the thief and followed to the cathedral.

Does Antonio’s faithlessness, then, mean that he—on some cosmic level—deserves to have the bicycle stolen? Does he deserve to not recover it? To suggest that these consequences, for Antonio, are just desserts for his lack of faith ignores the total lack of consequences for the bicycle thief himself. When Antonio finally catches up to the thief, they’re quickly surrounded by friends and neighbors, all of whom—including what I presume to be a mobster, based mostly on his fancy pinstripe suit and the respect/fear he commands in this destitute neighborhood—take the thief’s side. The thief fakes a seizure, garnering more sympathy. His weeping mother comes out and accosts Antonio. Even when Antonio, risking a serious beating, is rescued by the appearance of a cop, the cop shrugs off the theft and points out that everyone waiting to beat him up would come forward as a witness that the thief didn’t steal the bike. Why, if Antonio deserves to lose his bike, does this thief deserve to keep it?

While faith is a theme and Antonio’s lack of it is a vital character component, De Sica doesn’t make any specific moral judgments. In fact, his empathy for Antonio is so clear that when Antonio finally does cross the moral line at the end, we absolutely understand why, and maybe even feel a little sad that he doesn’t get away with it. In a sense, there’s an implication that God is simply taunting Antonio like Job: at the end of his rope, he sits across from a packed stadium where row after row of parked bicycles rest. As the match concludes, spectators take off on their bikes, endlessly speeding past Antonio. Unlike Job, who never gives up his faith, Antonio hasn’t had any—so why wouldn’t he make his own play to steal an unattended bike on an empty street?

This moment is the lynchpin of the film, and it’s why I refuse to acknowledge the pluralized title. I first learned of The Bicycle Thief while in film school, when it was known and had been known for fifty years by the title. While it’s true that the title in Italian is the plural Bicycle Thieves, it’s both more shocking and more poignant to realize we have not watched the story of an innocent man searching for a thief; we’ve watched the transformation of a good, decent person transformed by desperate circumstance into a thief. Bicycle Thieves tips that. The Bicycle Thief contains a beautifully poetic double meaning; Bicycle Thieves prosaically explains the content of the film.

Let’s consider that final sequence. I haven’t yet mentioned that Antonio spends the day searching for the bicycle with his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola). Bruno is a sort of mini-man, wise beyond his years, possibly because even at his young age, he works at an Esso station and (until Antonio got this job) serves as the family breadwinner. Of course, spending one’s formative years living under Fascism probably also helps a child grow up too quickly. Despite these rugged qualities, Bruno is still an innocent child. To an extent, he serves as a reflection of Antonio’s own innocence, and his treatment of the child—at times rough and unpleasant—is a way of externalizing how Antonio feels about himself.

Antonio spends most of the movie doing what he knows to be right: leaning on the help of the police, trying in earnest to recover his stolen bicycle instead of just stealing someone else’s, chasing down leads in order to find and confront the thief. In a literal sense, he does this both because he’s a moral person and to set a proper example for his son. On a more metaphoric level, Bruno is Antonio’s goodness and morality. It’s only after Antonio exhausts all the good, moral options for recovering his bicycle that he sends Bruno away to catch a streetcar.

That’s when he begins circling the unattended bike, not so much like a vulture but like a man who knows what he must do is wrong, steeling his courage to make this moral compromise for the “greater good”: his livelihood, and putting food in his family’s mouths, depends on this one act. The film recognizes the short-sightedness of this “greater good”; we understand Antonio’s desperation and poverty, we know this will cross a line Antonio has never crossed, and in the end, the only “greater good” it will serve is Antonio’s. De Sica recognizes this irony of this Fascist view, that the “greater good” and can only be served through the theft of someone else’s property.

Antonio knows it’s wrong, too, but he’s past the point of caring. And so Antonio has to face the worst humiliation of a father: to be caught red-handed, pulled off the stolen bike by a mob, arrested by police, insulted by onlookers–as young Bruno, who missed the streetcar and raced back to Dad, sees it all. Antonio’s humiliation echoes, on a small scale, the torment of Christ, tying into the theme of faith. But unlike their Roman predecessors, the owner of this bike shows Antonio mercy. He sees what anyone would see, as embarrassed tears streak Antonio’s wide cheeks: desperation, poverty, mortification, and temporary insanity.

After being set free, Antonio scrapes up what remains of his dignity, he and Bruno join hands, and they walk into the crowded rush hour streets of Rome. De Sica has said he wanted this final shot to echo the typical final shot of Charlie Chaplin (that of the Little Tramp, usually alone but sometimes accompanied by a companion, walking off into the distance), so his commentary on the lives of ordinary people might have been unintentional. Regardless, the fact that Antonio and Bruno disappear into a throng of sweaty workers suggests the idea that their story—while important to us for the last 89 minutes—is no different than any other person’s, no more or less important, not special or extraordinary.

This is just human life, nothing more, but the funny thing about human lives is that we see ourselves as the heroes of our story. To Antonio, on this Sunday, nothing is more important than finding his bicycle and keeping his job. Some view this as solipsism or narcissism, but the reality of human experience is the same for every individual: we can empathize and try to understand others until the cows come home, we can make deep connections with hundreds of people over the course of a lifetime, but at the end of the day, we only truly know ourselves. It’s up to us to pay attention and take care.

Antonio’s mistake is in thinking of providing for his family ahead of taking care of himself. He risks serious consequences—I’m not sure how severe, but it certainly sounds like jail time is likely—when he casts aside his goodness and steals another man’s bike. De Sica recognizes this—and so does Antonio, in the end—and it’s a powerful idea that resonates. Nobody can take care of loved ones from a prison cell. We must take care of ourselves first, and then, if we so choose, we can focus on everyone else.

That’s an important lesson that too often gets lost in the religious and political preaching for self-sacrifice. A person cannot put the care of others ahead of himself; that way madness lies. Nobody should have to endure Fascism, or socialism, or any “-ism” that puts an amorphous collective ahead of an individual’s freedom, to discover this truth.

Keep or Sell? Keep

Up Next: The Big Lebowski (1998)

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