More than 60 years after its release, “Bicycle Thieves” is a profound lesson on how to survive tough times, but often not appreciated that way. While widely considered in saccharine terms, it actually offers a bleak assessment of humanity’s worst impulses. For years mislabeled as “The Bicycle Thief,” the original title of Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece actually gets the point across much better. The story is less focused on the murky figure who stole the bike that Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) was using for his meager job putting up posters around Rome. Instead, as Ricci himself grows desperate in the film’s closing moments, “Bicycle Thieves” exposes the endless cycle of corruption that comes out of hard times, and how self-interest so often trumps the impulse to do the right thing. Decades later, that message resonates more than ever.
It’s also a bitter pill to swallow, one that has allowed “Bicycle Thieves” to become sanitized in the history books. De Sica’s work has been doused in nostalgia and labeled a perennial “classic,” a handy label for movies that accrue so much value over time that we stop asking what made them worthwhile in the first place. Even some viewers who weren’t alive when “Bicycle Thieves” came out view the movie through the lens of nostalgia, recalling a touching father-son story steeped in the sweetness of their bond. That’s not wrong, but it falls short of parsing the darker morality tale at the center of this profound story.
By the time De Sica made “Bicycle Thieves” in 1948, Italian neorealism had found its groove. The postwar movement captured impoverished lives on their own terms, relying on non-professional actors and real-world environments rather than any measure of artifice. These days, that description could apply to virtually every microbudget project on the planet, so it’s hard to convey how radical it was at the time, or the specific socioeconomic conditions that made the approach so worthwhile. Europe was in shambles after WWII, and many of the people suffering in its wake were left to roam the wreckage and eke out some measure of existence.
Ricci embodies this plight, and while audiences now may be inclined to pity him, “Bicycle Thieves” makes the case that any attempt to see the character from a protracted view misses the point. Ricci’s not just some victim of class; he’s an everyman, a father and husband whose experiences over the course of the movie mirror ones that anyone could endure — struggling to find a means of supporting his family, he’s thrust into a scenario that turns him into the very same antagonist he resented. That danger transcends the specifics of his socioeconomic troubles, and seems all the more relevant at a time when the nature of class struggle has intensified around the world.
Ultimately, the key to understanding the power of “Bicycle Thieves” involves the innocence of Bruno (Enzo Staiola), Ricci’s son. For much of the movie, Bruno’s a passive observer, the adorable object of Ricci’s affection, and the reason compelling him to fight his way toward finding the missing bicycle. One could also argue that Ricci’s most reckless act — attempting to steal a bicycle himself, and rescued by the sudden empathy of his target — happens to a large degree because he wants to demonstrate to his son a capacity to win the day at all costs. He’s compelled by survival instincts, but undone by pride.
And how does Bruno process all this? The movie leaves that question wide open. Staiola is still with us — he gave up acting in the ‘50s to become a math teacher — and it would behoove our culture to ask him where he thinks Bruno wound up. Over the years, “Bicycle Thieves” has been largely understood as a sentimental movie, and appreciated as such. Yet the title suggests the most cynical prospects for Bruno’s future: Like father, like son. In a heartless world, we’re all bicycle thieves in waiting, and the hardest choices in life stem from the challenge of denying that temptation.
“Bicycle Thieves” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.