I’ve been thinking about this film for a while now, ever since the Friday night in early autumn when I decided to cap a week’s labor by viewing Vittorio Di Sica’s masterpiece about an impoverished Italian family in post World War II Rome. On that particular Friday night, it seemed everything in the immediate world needed to halt so that I could falteringly stumble into the realism lauded by so many as one of the most important films of all time. Lacking any knowledge for comparison or categorization, I was left alone on the sofa with Bicycle Thieves, viewing it with the same sort of work-weary eyes that surely attended its first showings in the provincial towns of Italy in the bleak years of the late 1940s.
Bicycle Thieves is not difficult to view in the technical sense. Di Sica presents the story as a straightforward, almost factual course. An out of work man, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), receives word from the local employment officer that he is eligible for work distributing movie posters, a position for which he must provide his own transport, a bicycle. This work has been a long time coming, and Antonio’s bicycle must first be redeemed at a sacrificially high price from the local pawn shop. On the proud first day of his new employment, a young man brazenly steals Antonio’s bicycle, leading the man and his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), on a journey through Rome in a desperate search to retrieve the means of their livelihood.
With such a simple premise, as the disc loaded I wondered if the film would be a fable-like musing on the importance of work, or if Di Sica would be giving me a lesson in post war economics. No such thing. For the viewer, Bicycle Thieves is akin to walking the streets tucked inside the coat pocket of Antonio or Bruno — dirty, hungry, filled with a cautious optimism one moment and utterly bereft of it in the next. The film’s careful use of light, rain — even the Roman pavement and architecture — all create a world of painstaking realism. The portrayal of poverty as experienced by one family, and especially as it is borne by the child, reaches across the years with a firm tap on the shoulder.
While Bicycle Thieves presents an unsentimental primer on the desperation and the hard work that comes with being poor, it gracefully holds in its other palm a glimpse of the beautiful mosaic of family ties undiluted by the sort of upward striving that elevates individuals from poverty while rending them from home. Little Bruno, who has his own job at a gasoline station, is crucial to the search for the bicycle. He and his father share desperate moments, a terrifying separation, and a joyous episode of abandon. Antonio’s strides are long and not always easy for Bruno to fall into, but cling close the little boy does, father and son inseparably bound in the work of searching.
One line, spoken by Bruno, caused me to stop what I was doing, weeks after seeing the film. “We’ll look for it, piece by piece, then we’ll put it together.” With these few words, Di Sica captures an essence of childhood that is nearly impossible to describe but important to feel. Knowing that the child is the father of the man, Di Sica reveals in Bicycle Thieves the portrait of a man who is wordlessly instructing and encouraging his son at the childhood truth of keeping hope in the face of defeat.
The film’s climactic scene almost tramples what has been so carefully constructed, as the unfailing dignity of Antonio goes through a momentary, and shocking, transformation that threatens to tear him from Bruno in the cruelest manner. But the realism of the clinging child brings to the characters one of the few snippets of satisfaction to be found in Bicycle Thieves. The ending, painful though it is, somehow can be viewed as holding slim seeds of possibility, the father and son relationship intact, boy and man together into the gray duration.
Bicycle Thieves rewards with infinite angles of complexity, themes that surface and recede upon reflection, and a final sense of ambiguity that stretches the viewer and stirs up questions about individual response and just how important it remains to snatch meaning from a work of art and to take it for ourselves, forever.