Greetings again from the darkness. To understand why this is considered a masterpiece of cinema and one of the best films ever made, one must put the era of its release into perspective. It’s 1948 – post war Italy and poverty mandates the fabric of society. Humanity is difficult to come by. Self-interest controls actions and emotions. Hollywood is in a glitz and glamor mode, while Italian cinema has been dominated with light-hearted and simple films. Vittorio De Sica is a matinée idol as an actor and also, as a director, one of the driving forces of Neo-realism … a genre that focused on the struggles of real people.
There is nothing fancy or complicated about this story. Ricci is one of the masses looking for work at a time when jobs are beyond scarce. One day he is extremely fortunate to be offered a job posting signs around town. He is elated at the opportunity to again provide for his wife and young son. The only catch … he must have a bicycle for the job. His wife pawns their bedsheets to retrieve the bicycle and we join in with their pride and happiness brought on by this job.
We see Ricci on a ladder posting a Rita Hayworth movie advertisement … an example of Hollywood’s polar opposite approach to movies as compared to the Italian neo-realism. While on the ladder, Ricci witnesses the theft of his precious bicycle. His frantic reaction demonstrates the loss means so much more than the loss of two-wheeled transportation. It’s actually the loss of hope.
Soon enough Ricci and his young son Bruno are searching the streets of Rome trying to find the bicycle. It plays like a road trip movie as they experience many interactions on the streets and back alleys. Their search is painful to watch, and father and son endure many emotions, none more powerful than the last few minutes and a touching final shot that is a tribute to the great Charlie Chaplin.
All three lead actors are first timers which adds to the realistic look and feel of the characters and stories. Lamberto Maggiorani (Ricci) was a factory worker who showed up for auditions. He is a very striking man with a Daniel Day-Lewis appearance. Enzo Staiola (Bruno) was a 7 year old boy just watching the whole movie process when he was picked out of the crowd and cast. Lianella Carell (Maria) was a journalist on set to interview De Sica when he cast her as the wife/mother. Additionally, most of this was filmed on the streets and on location in Rome (very few sets).
The actual Italian title is “Ladri di biciclette” which translates into Bicycle Thieves, but it has been best known in the U.S. as The Bicycle Thief, the title I prefer. It’s based on a novel by Luigi Bartolini and the screenplay comes from the incredibly prolific screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who worked with most of the great filmmakers from the 1940’s through the 1970’s. Also of note, Sergio Leone was an assistant to director Vittorio De Sica (pictured left) during production. De Sica directed many wonderful films including Sunshine (1947), which looked at juvenile corruption, and Umberto D. (1952) which examined old age.
The film received an honorary Oscar in 1950, as there had been no category yet established for Best Foreign Language film. Many question the status of this film as a masterpiece all these years later, but I certainly still experience it’s powerful and sensitive message, and would recommend to anyone who admires world cinema and the classics.
watch a trailer from one of the re-releases: