This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
"Put the blame on Mame," sang the red-haired girl in the poster, the one that Antonio is gluing to the wall when his bicycle is stolen. If it only it were that easy. Bicycle Thieves has scorn and skepticism aplenty, for the overwhelmed bureaucracy and government of postwar Italy that can't put men to work, for the Catholic Church with its phony sentiments and bourgeois charity offering a shave if you'll grovel low enough, for the pompous bedroom psychics who offer cheap pessimism and recoil from money as if it reminds them what they're really doing. And for the small-minded, jeering mobs who gang up on desperate men, and the snobby little brats who turn up their noses over plates of spaghetti, and even the Communist Party which writer Cesare Zavattini belonged to, which seems distant and rhetorical compared to the desperate needs of the stumbling human beings interrupting its gatherings in the catacombs of Rome.
And yet this is a film of context and, ultimately, compassion. If the film refuses to sentimentalize institutions or ideals, it is ever-attuned to the complications that motivate and mitigate human behavior. As Jean Renoir said, "Everyone has their reasons." And those reasons have an awful lot in common - one of the signature motifs of the movie is that in an atmosphere of competition, desperation, and degradation, every man feels compelled to look out for himself. Bicycle Thieves does not endorse this ethos, nor does it offer a hopeful alternative - this is not a film which offers cheap inspiration, or even much hope at its conclusion. Yet it observes this atmosphere unblinkingly, leaving us to draw our own conclusions, and the climax refuses to let us wallow in self-defeating despair or condescending pity. Instead at its end we feel angry, uncertain what should be done, but knowing that this situation, whether in 1948 or now, is unacceptable.
Does it seem strange to say that this movie is also beautiful, often warm, occasionally quite funny, and suffused with a careworn romanticism and naturalistic poetry? It is also, very pointedly, a "movie" - a slice of life, yes, in a sense, but filtered through the structures, motifs, and payoffs of the movie world.
This has always been central to the film's appeal - David Thomson and other critics have noted how poetic the rain-slicked streets look and others have observed that De Sica had a rain machine going offscreen, along with powerful lights to illuminate these "natural" street scenes. Quite a few have contrasted these appealing cinematic touches with the weary anti-charisma of the nonprofessional actors (always excepting the immensely charming young boy), complaining that only in the pizzeria scene does the father come alive and seem a full human being. I don't really agree - I think there's a pointed dreariness and weariness to the first few scenes but as soon as the bicycle arrives the film subtly shifts its tone.
The bicycle is, in a sense, a magical object - a physical thing that represents an attitude, an idea, an emotion. The music grows lighter and more playful when Antonio and his resourceful wife Maria trade in their bedsheets and acquire this spry, light little vehicle. It has a practical purpose above all else: it allows Antonio to take that job zipping around town and putting up those Rita Hayworth posters at places with names like "the Florida." But there's something else, some almost ineffable about its appeal - it represents grace and mobility, and as Antonio places Maria on its handlebars and flirts with her, we see it even brings a spark back into their exhausted and strained relationship. Furthermore its intricate workings give Antonio's mechanically-inclined son Bruno something to lovingly tend to (in lieu of toys his parents probably can't afford, toys which war and postwar reality have probably made him too grown-up for anyway).
So when the bike is stolen we see not just the dire financial consequences - Antonio will lose his job, the family might starve - but the emotional, related to the financial ones but also directly tied in some subtle way to the bicycle itself. And so the journey begins to get it back - its theft is a classic "inciting incident." Intuitively as well as practically, this motivates the plot of the film; and in fact Zavattani's clever screenplay is a model for screenwriters despite its seeming lack of artifice or contrivance. Without the safe framework of genre to rely on, the story must hold our interest, fusing a narrative by cobbling together elements taking from daily life. It is episodic, a collection of memorable moments, but it must also tie these moments together in a logical, dramatically motivated fashion. Bicycle Thieves is a perfect example of how to tell a good story without seeming to be doing just that.
But what ultimately gives the film its power, its strength, and its enduring legacy is not the journey but the destination - a crowded, noisy stadium; a dingy street corner where the threadbare father paces back and forth while his son looks up at him and wonders what he will do; a bicycle resting, lonely, tempting, against a quiet home. The bicycle scrutinizes Antonio's earlier self-righteousness in accusing the thief and his accomplices, mocks the victim's moral hesitations, and invites him to become a part of the problem since there appears to be no solution. It tells him to pass the buck onto the next unlucky bastard in a never ending cycle of exploitation and victimization.
Throughout the film, Antonio's precarious job indirectly puts him into conflict with his fellow man; his ever so slight professional advantage places him at a personal disadvantage. His need to work earns him resentment and scorn from other people in dire straits, even some who are probably better off than him (specifically, his search for the bicycle irritates and antagonizes people wherever he goes, as he cuts in line, pesters others with questions, or barges into businesses and homes). In this sense work has not set Antonio free; it allows him to survive but entails isolation, ostracization, and humiliation, just as it does for the thieves and their accomplices, who are "working" in their own way. (There's a marvellous scene where a bicycle parts seller realizes his good might be stolen; he shifts from irritated professionalism to nervous self-justification to relieved righteousness in the space of a few minutes.)
Now Antonio must decide between clinging to the one shred of dignity left to him - the notion that he has been a victim, unfairly and unjustly mistreated and therefore not responsible for his own predicament - or throwing it away. We see him wondering...what is it worth to be "right," to be "good," to "do the right thing" when nobody will recognize this, when life rewards the unmerciful, unsentimental, and unscrupulous? So he tells Bruno to wait around the corner while he secretly tries to dash off with the bike. As he desperately and futilely attempts to pedal away from the angry mob, fragments of his own conscience animated and set against him, Antonio passes by his son in the street. Bruno's astonished and anguished gaze at what his father has become is the most heartbreaking thing in the movie, and constitutes one of the most devastating shots I've seen in any movie.
This is Antonio's answer, what those abstract notions really entailed - the now-dashed respect and admiration of his own son. Though this final degradation can not eliminate the boy's love, however confused and upset, he now knows that his father is human, or worse like an animal, desperate to survive and willing to do whatever it takes to do so. Throughout the day the boy has witnessed hypocrisy, selfishness and immorality, from the creepy pedophile who tries to buy him a trinket at the market to the pompous priests and parishioners who chase him out of the church to the preening little snob at the cafe to the ragged boyish burglar racing through a bordello and hiding behind his mother. Amidst it all, his father's stubborn nobility shone through the moral muck like a beacon, but now the light has gone out and will never return.
With a fierceness then, the little boy clings to his father's hand, and they disappear into the crowd, and leave us watching, seething with frustration. Unlike the boy, we can't quite blame the father, for perhaps we've been in his shoes, asking ourselves just how much we should bend the rules to save ourselves or provide for our loved ones, wondering what the point of ethics is in a win-or-lose world, humoring the possibility that the crafty and cruel really do come out on top, or at least stay afloat. And we don't feel inclined to shrug our shoulders and say that's the world, but instead, why should it be? Or, if it is, and even if it can't be any other way, why shouldn't we give it the finger and refuse to go down without a fight?
There are no easy answers in Bicycle Thieves, no Mame to blame, no easily identified Cossacks to overthrow. But there are plenty of questions, and just because we can't know and may never know the answers doesn't mean they can't be, or shouldn't be, asked.
Bicycle Thieves appears at 4:45 in "Noir and Naturalism," a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies."