The Greatest films of all time: 4. Bicycle Thieves (1948)(Italy)

Prologue:Why “Bicycle Thieves”?

Why “Bicycle Thieves” jumping on the list of the greatest films of all time to the number 4 on this site? As it has been explained on the front post of the site, only a very few films (so far four) could have defied the historical time criteria of the greatest films, that are “Battleship Potemkin”, “A man with a movie camera”, “Metropolis” and “Bicycle Thieves”. These films that were not the most original, technical, and not with the most impact and the most survival factors, have been able to create such a comprehensive impression and impact on many that defy any criteria, so  stand above all the other films. This does not mean that these films are short of any originality, technicality, impact factor and survival, but in contrary stand above the rest in any of these elements and beyond leaving an overall value that is unique. The rating here could be close to what this film was rated as the third greatest film of all time by the first universal poll in history by thousands of filmmakers and critics in Expo 58 in the Brussels World’s Fair, only beneath “Battleship Potemkin” and “Gold Rush” of Chaplin.


“Bicycle Thieves”, one of the major films of neorealism in cinema that was originated in Italy and put this country’s cinema suddenly on the world map, is quite different and unique even among other great neo-realistic films such as “Rome, Open City” (1945), “Shoeshine” (1946), “Paisa” (1946), and “La Terra Perma” (1948). Even Vittorio De Sica, the creator of “Bicycle Thieves”, could not repeat such a masterpiece with his next great works such as “Umberto-D”, “Miracle in Milan” after his great earlier “Shoeshine”. This is true with many great works in all different art media, as Leonardo Da Vinci could not repeat “Mona Lisa”, or in cinema Eisenstein could not repeat “Battleship Potemkin” and Vertov could not repeat “A man with a movie camera” and Frtiz Lang could not repeat “Metropolis”.


Among many essays and articles that have been written on “Bicycle Thieves” and many recognitions, though insufficiently, this article will attempt to evaluate this great film one more time.


While “Neorealism” started in cinema in Italy and with masterpieces such as “Rome, Open city” of Roberto Rossellini, it was consolidated and opened a great chapter in the art of cinema with Vittorio De Sica and “Bicycle Thieves”. While “Rome, Open City” was made right at the conclusion of WWII and dealt with its impact on a nation and their resistance reaction, “Bicycle Thieves” made just after the war, portrayed the aftermath of the war on the same nation. When after the war, the allies came out victorious and wealthy, the axis power of Germany, Italy and Japan as the defeaters suffered and became the subjects of control and domination by the victors. Here not the governments and the creators of the war suffered, but the nations under them, who endured the suffrage at the time of war and after.

“Bicycle Thieves” that like its predecessor “Rome, Open City” was played mostly by the ordinary people on the streets and not professional actors, is a classic pictorial testimony of the simple people being the subjects of suffrage. The film is basically about a nation who were lied by her leader, Mussolini to reach the glory of the past, left after the war with poverty and unemployment, struggling to live day by day. In this struggle for survival, the ordinary and innocent man may even become a thief, stealing a bicycle, as a means of holding a job! Antonio Ricci who has just found a job, affixing commercial posters around streets of Rome, needs a bicycle for the job, but has none, so he laments the truth of his ordinary alikes: “I feel, I am bound to chain! I feel I have been cursed from the day I was born”


Not to lose the job opportunity that has come about after a long time of hunger and unemployment, Antonio’s wife, Maria finds a solution after washing their wedding bed linens, selling them for 7500 lire to purchase a bicycle for him so to start working. Like the opening scene of job offering, where there were many men looking for jobs but only two of them like Antonio lucky to get one, many other people were also lined up at the pawn shop to sell their belongings to make a living. When going to get the bicycle from the same shop, but a different section, Antonio’s eyes through the camera follows with sadness their wedding bed sheets that are carried up to the shelves where there are hundreds similar piled up. Despite the bicycle is a very old one, but both Antonio and Maria’s eyes are shining with joy, as they have a means of acquiring money for living.


The film is so real as it can get, and frame by frame is classic as it gets. There is nothing more or less added to the film, as it will be done in the years to come in the similar adaptations by other cinemas, specially in America, where the acting by the professional actors such as Marlon Brando, in “On The Waterfront” and “A streetcar named Desire” dominates the realism of the films. As it was said, every frame of the film is classic and documentarily realistic portraying a nation once in glory, but now in poverty and struggle for survival. When Antonio leaves their apartment with her young son, both of them and Maria are full of joy for the first day of his job. The streets in the early hours of the morning are full of people like them, bikers and people hanging to the full buses are all off to start a day of work to take food home.

But as in real life, the joy of ordinary people would not last long and the poverty that brings with itself all kinds of struggle for survival, such as thefts and other crimes, Antonio’s bicycle was stolen on the first day of his job, while he was putting a poster on a wall. The one day of joy of having a means of income, turns suddenly to sadness and despair. Depicting the struggling lives of Italians after the war, while it could have been done in many different formats, but centering the theme on a bicycle was genius of De Sica. This central theme is like in photography emphasizing on an object in a related/contrasted background. The bicycle that on its own is plenty around and has no special meaning, in the film is an object of happiness, hope, sadness, despair, friendship of those helping Antonio for its recovery, possession and dispossession, and crime.


The eyes and mind of Antonio are preoccupied with the bicycle, in a desperate search to find his lost one. All these have been done frame by frame to the bare bones with a realistic technique like the life itself without any additives. The only additives other than the close up and long shots of the camera in its true black and white, is using the nature such as rain on a Sunday, the poor and shattered city after the war, and many ordinary people all around. Film as a common public medium could be the best not just for the entertainment, but awakening that “Bicycle Thieves” achieves at the best.


In the search for his stolen bicycle, Antonio and his son, Bruno chasing a man whom they saw talking to the bicycle thief, they enter a church on a Sunday. This is the only refuge for many poor people to get free hair cuts and shave, then warm soup and bread after attending a mass. The church people are all well dressed and have no signs of poverty, while the poor, men, women and children in plenty and in their torn clothes, waiting to be fed! All the poor in the church were real people and in fact were there to get hair cut, shave and eat and were not happy to linger on for shooting of the film. These are all the realism of a nation after the war that needed such heroism as of De Sica to portray their situation at the time on the silver screen.

While the film showing all the bitterness of the realism of a nation after the war, it is not political or judgmental, but full of emotions, joy, sadness, despair, love, hope, friendship, hate and anger. And shame and guilt, when Antonio slaps his son, on the way of chasing the old man and accomplice of the bicycle thief, when Bruno is critical of his father for letting the man escape. For redemption, Antonio reaches the conclusion of no point in such a life that the end will be death anyway, so taking his son for a lunch, so both to enjoy a brief moment of life in between. Then out of despair for finding a way to find his bicycle, he goes to a female psyche/counselor who is busy to give poor people wise but obvious solutions that they could not figure them out. The woman takes his money to just tell him simply to think about it and look for it and if he finds it today, he will find it or he will not!


The plot of the film completes itself by ending where it was not meant, but like in real life, so the victim becoming a felon by attempting to steal someone else’s bicycle but getting caught. The film that has conveyed all its message to this point is not intending to go farther and ends. The owner of the bicycle after catching Antonio with the help of others, let him go, as he is already ashamed in front of his son, and for “he already has enough troubles”!

De Sica before “Bicycle Thieves” had not yet been a famous actor and his previous and another neo-realistic film, “Shoeshine” of 1946 has not yet brought him the acclaim from abroad. So he was penniless like the Italian people in the film, and “Bicycle Thieves” was his very personal. The film that was only in the title based on the story by Luigi Bartolini, was step by step built up and written by De Sica and Cesare Zavattini, who walked around Rome to know the people, characters, their lives and behaviors in different neighborhoods and on the streets, so portray them in the film. So the film with not much a story line was an excuse to show Rome and Italian people’s lives after the war. 

The acting by the real characters like Bruno, played by Enzo Staiola, whom De Sica just picked among 500 kids in an audition, was so real that the Italian press at the time after the release of the film gossiped that De Sica used harsh methods to force Bruno playing so well. But all these later on were denied as false accusations by Staiola whom the film made a professional actor of him, appearing in 18 films afterwards. Lamberto Maggiorani who played Antonio’s role was a factory worker who had lost his job like in the film, and made the first impression on De Sica that he would be the right person for the protagonist role.

When the film was shown in the rest of Europe, there were hailing commentaries not only by the critics, but by poets, writers and intellectuals who all bowed before De Sica for his masterpiece, as to them nothing like that had happened on the screen since Chaplin’s time. When the film was previewed in Paris, at the Salle Pleyel, attended by 3,000 French cultural figureheads from Andre Gide and Rene Clair to Malraux and Cocteau, these Parisian intellectuals were on their feet to salute De Sica. In fact this film with “Rome, Open City” of Rossellini gave birth to the new Italian cinema and from then on opened a new great chapter in the world cinema with more great filmmakers to come such as Fellini and Antonioni.                     

The impact of “Bicycle Thieves” at the height of Italian neorealism has not only been on that country, but in Europe, specially in France, US and beyond, in later years on Iranian and Indian cinema, where the social oppressions and class struggles endured later. As the bicycle was a mean or tool in the film, “Bicycle Thieves” became a mean and a prototype for any filmmakers who intended to portray bitter reality of life on the screen to awaken others and even to stimulate social changes and uprising. The renowned French film critic, Andre Bazin wrote a long and influential essay on the film a year later, in 1949 and hailed it as “one of the first example of pure cinema” and “Only in the best Chaplin films are there situations of an equally overwhelming conscience”.

“Bicycle Thieves” as a great example of neorealism reminds us of the responsibility of cinema as an art medium that a whole real world exists out of our made up fictions, that could be depicted by the movie camera and brought to our attention at the best. This importance and duty of cinema to the society and culture is not limited to portraying poverty and other forms of man made misery, but any other forms of reality of life such as our joy, happiness, love, hope, dreams and more.

“Bicycle Thieves” as a well done follow up of Dziga Vertov’s “A man with a movie camera”, and documentary like, it goes far beyond, reaching the true neorealism that is “Realism” or documentary by a genuine and genius mind behind the script and camera. So such a genius and commitment would show us the reality at a personal level, like relationships between the husband and wife (Antonio and Maria), the father and son (Bruno), the friends (who were helping Antonio to find her bicycle, or the friends and associates of the thief), in close ups. Then at a universal or societal level, the film deliberately walks us through many places and neighborhoods of Rome to show us the story is not individual as it could happen to many others alike, and also that the struggle for living is not limited to the protagonist.

The film’s triumph keys and its inclusion in the greatest top films of our list, unlike any other film and even the other neo-realistic films, before and after are as follow:

  1. True Neorealism: More than Reality:

Unlike many other films even in the Italian neorealism movement, that still hold on to a script and story line, despite being played by non-professional actors but the ordinary people, “Bicycle Thieves” has no such script. The story simply and wisely attracted Zavattini and De Sica from the novel of Bartolini, basically for the title. The rest of the storyline was in fact built up and written over a long period of time, walking around Rome with and without camera to different neighborhood and streets. The film therefore is like “A man with a movie camera”documentary and experimental. At the same time, it is more than a documentary, as it has a simple and short story, that otherwise could be reiterated in a few lines. It is more than an experimental work, because it does not impose the camera, cinematography, directing, acting, editing or any other elements of filmmaking onto the work. It is larger than life in a way, or clearer to our conscience than the reality itself, as we all may see the reality around us, but we may not grasp it.                

  1. Opinionated and non-opinionated:

The film is clearly holds a political or in a better word a social stance like other neo-realistic films, or any other political and social films, but with no clear such a message pouring out on to the audience. It is non-judgmental and non-political, and it is not socialist or even communist as it had been accused at the time, when the Christian Democrats and the catholic church were in power. Antonio, a simple unemployed man like so many others after the war, is only desperately looking for his stolen bicycle, and on this path, he does not care or think about any political factions such as workers union, socialists and communists, when walking to one of their gatherings. Similarly he has no attention to the church missioners who are all well dressed, servicing the poor after their prayer and mass ceremony in the church. He even does not attend to his son, Bruno who is hungry and simply wants to have some free food in the church. If Zavattini and De Sica added any of their opinions or message into the film, perhaps it would not have been so receiving all the world and in history of cinema to this day, make it universal as Chaplin’s films are in a different category.

  1. Artful but Common:

Unlike many works of art, including the Italian cinema after neorealism by Fellini and Antonioni who tried hard to pour their own ideas and psychology onto the screen, and needing intellectual minds to figure them out, “Bicycle Thieves” is artful while common. It is artistic to make us see the reality of the time that still exists at different levels and forms, and that we could easily miss to see. It is artful to pass on the message without pissing anybody off, as nobody is dared to be upset at Antonio who is poor and has lost his bicycle and looking for it. Nobody could be even judgmental of him stealing another bicycle as many will do the same in a similar situation. Even the catchers and the owner of the stolen bicycle let him go, as they understand his circumstances, and that the whole society at large are in the similar situation. There is only shame of stealing someone else’s bicycle in the eyes and demeanor of his son and Antonio himself that will remain within their hearts and minds for long. But at the same time, their leaving for home, hand in hand, shows the forgiveness. It is artful as it shows us the real life as even the bicycle thief and his associates and friends are real and not bad and evil people.    

 More and better than artistic, it is common, not only in a sense of common reality and universal as the story could occur in other places in the world at different sections of time, it draws the attention of the commons, the ordinary people all over the world, like Chapin’s films. One does not need to be intellectual or belonging to any special ideological group to understand and appreciate the film, as it is felt to the bones of every human being across the globe, then and now. Many artists in the world history and in different art media have tried hard to deliver something powerful, and at the same time enjoyable and enlightening, but only a few has achieved such. The problem with those kinds of art have been in the language of the art as it has not been common and understandable to all, as it has been too literary or technical with the artist’s imposition all over. Da Vinci, Beethoven, Mozart, Shakespeare, Whitman, Eisenstein and Chaplin are the example of geniuses who were able to present their arts to everyone and across the globe and history, in a simple language while very powerful. In fact this it the hardest element of any masterwork to be done so elegantly to be felt and appreciated by all.

To put “Bicycle Thieves” and De Sica’s works along the greats while it could be considered exaggeration by some, but it deserves it for its simplicity, realism and neorealism, touching hearts and minds, while angering the charlatans and shams. What cinema needs more of “Bicycle Thieves”, not special effects, digitalism and the new trends of virtuosity, that are all farce!         


In closing remarks “Bicycle Thieves” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“Bicycle Thieves” is original not only in cinema, but within the neorealism movement itself as well. While it has a simple and honest storyline, it is built up along the way from early on, even the script. It is so original and realistic, shown in the real life places and played by all the real life ordinary people, that even the film experts, miss on that some scenes were made up, such as the rain scene that was arranged by fire trucks pouring water around. It is original for whatever said earlier and beyond so that no adaptations or similar works have yet been made. If any film deserves sequel, it is “Bicycle Thieves”!
  2. Technicality:The technicality of “Bicycle Thieves” is in all the above, in its artistic quality while being so simple, tender and common to all. Despite being a realistic film with not much of camera work, cinematography, set design, director imposition, professional acting and editing, the film was shot by six cameras and over a good long period of time and cost quite a bit for the time, to give us all possible angles of reality of the situation that otherwise we may have missed with our naked eyes.
  3. Impact Factor:The influence of “Bicycle Thieves” has been on so many films of the future, not just neorealism in Italy, but all over the world, in Europe, America, India and Iran who developed their own style of realism in different formats. The works of John Huston such as “Treasure of Sierra Madre” or Elia Kazan’s of “On the waterfront”, “America, America”, Satyajit Ray in India and more are some such influential examples.
  4. Survival:“Bicycle Thieves” has survived well to this very day for its sincerity, realism, and portraying humans emotions unlike any other works, perhaps only Chaplin’s.

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