Continuing with my apparent theme of Italian cinema classics (I am hoping to go to Rome next semester, after all), this week's film is Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948).
From the outset Bicycle Theives (or The Bicycle Thief , if you prefer to stick to the closer translation) seems as though it will be a sweet, simple father-son bonding story. For about 2/3s of the movie that is the case. But in the home stretch, the film takes a turn into slightly darker territory and reveals itself as a portrait of a working class man whose love for family above all else drives him to desperation.
Antonio Ricci is lucky to get a job putting up posters around town—most of neighbors and coworkers have been trained as bricklayers, a profession in low demand at this particular moment in Italian history. The caveat to Antonio's new job is that he must ride about town by bicycle; though he lacks one at first, his wife is quick to sell their bedspreads and sheets ("We can sleep without them") to help pay for a two-wheeler. The bike proves to be a trophy not just for Antonio, but for his young son Bruno, who takes pride in prepping his dad for the first day on the job by donning a matching uniform to help grease up the gears on the bike for the day ahead.
As you've no doubt gleaned from the title, Antonio's bike gets stolen, and subsequently he and Bruno embark on a journey across town to track down the thief who made off with it. It's an endearing tale to be sure, but where it really hits home is in the subtle emotional moments sprinkled throughout. At one point Antonio, more than a bit frustrated with his luck, lashes out at Bruno and saunters off alone. A mere moment later, his ears perk up to some nearby swimmers shouting out that a boy is drowning. Antonio races off in the direction of the hubbub, assuming the boy to be his own son, and arrives at the scene just in time to see that Bruno is safely ashore (the drowning "boy" was one of those pesky teenagers swimming in the river—safe and sound now, though a bit worse for wear). It's a moment that packs a small little punch to the gut; Antonio realizes straightaway that his anger was uncalled for, especially since his family matters more than a stupid old bike anyway.
And yet that's the line of thinking that leads him down a dangerous path, culminating in one of the most legitimately shocking, "will-he-or-won't-he" moments from any film I've seen in recent memory. Antonio's initial quest for his own particular bike becomes secondary to finding just any bike in order to be able to keep providing for his family. First this change in motivations leads Antonio to accost a suspicious-looking punk with seemingly no connection to the actual theft. Then, it prompts Antonio to abandon his morals as he attempts to steal a bicycle outside a football stadium. Unlike the original thief, Antonio is handily caught and put to shame. The bike's owner mercifully lets him off the hook, though perhaps that makes the pain of having to return to Bruno, scarred forever by the image of his father surreptitiously purloining a bike off a street corner and getting chased down posthaste, even worse. The film ends with teary-eyed father and son sulking off into the distance and being subsumed by the crowd on the way. Bicycle Thieves is a story about family and parentage, but it is also a powerful statement about the desperation that poverty incurs. Antonio gets so caught up in his own problems that he forgets and neglects the hundreds of working class men all around him, each one fighting to overcome the constraints of poverty to bring home the bread for his family at the end of the day.