Friday Flashback: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

For those of you who read the Magic Lantern (and I humbly thank you for that), you know that I don’t hastily throw around the word “masterpiece” upon every film that I have a deep admiration for. In fact, I think it’s somewhat rare for me to label a film as such. However, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist film The Bicycle Thief is a small gem of a masterpiece indeed. Last year, Empire magazine even went so far as to rank it #4 on their list of “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema” – just one of many notable film lists it rightfully appears on.

The story is simple enough. Set in Rome during the economic depression of post-World War II, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is lucky enough to land a good job pasting posters throughout the city’s walls. But he is told that he must have a bicycle for the job (“No bicycle, no job.”). Antonio has an adoring wife and two small children to support – and just recently hocked his bicycle to put food on the table. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) takes charge and makes the decision to pawn their bedsheets so that her husband can re-claim his bicycle and go to work. Things are finally looking up and Antonio will now be bringing in some money. Of course, his precious bicycle is stolen on his very first day on the job – right under his very eyes. The next day, Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) walk the streets of Rome desperately looking for the stolen bicycle.

The film was shot on location in Rome with De Sica (staying true to the Italian movement initiated by Roberto Rossellini) casting non-actors with no training whatsoever in order to give the film a truly authentic quality. In fact, Maggiorani, the lead, was a factory worker – and he is riveting and heartbreaking here. And though the plot and De Sica’s style can be seen as somewhat minimal, it is in this simplicity that makes this glorious movie a must-see for every fan of film, both young and old. There are just too many scenes and brief moments that, simple as they may appear, manage to capture your heart and your mind.

The love between Antonio and his wife is illustrated beautifully at the onset of the film – they are playful and affectionate. And Maggiorani and Carell have a dynamic and very believable chemistry together. As the son, young Staiola has magnificent screen presence. You can easily tell what the distraught boy is thinking as he futilely walks the streets with his father – even when he isn’t saying a word. When all hope is near lost, his father asks him if he is tired and hungry and the way Staiola answers without even speaking a word is beautiful to watch. Even the tiny, quick gesture of Antonio fixing young Bruno’s scarf on the way home makes for a delightful moment.

The New York Times heralded The Bicycle Thief as “brilliant and devastating” – and that, it certainly is. Italian cinema in the 1940’s was dominated and influenced by the neorealism movement. Its impact was enormous and would later serve to inspire the French New Wave cinema. Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica, and even Fellini were staples of this movement, with brilliant films such as Rome, Open City (1945), La Terra Trema (1948), and my personal favorite, Umberto D being released. The Bicycle Thief, now 60+ years since its release, still is a magical watch and one of the most touching films to grace the silver screen.

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2 Responses to Friday Flashback: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

  1. Aaron says:

    This is one of my favorite films.

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