It’s not often that I watch 60-year-old movies, and even rarer for me to pick up a foreign film. But when I saw 1948′s Bicycle Thieves (alternately known as The Bicycle Thief) available as a free rental from the public library, I figured I might as well give it a try. After all, the film is almost always mentioned on “Best of” lists and I do like to take a break from relentless CGI from time to time, so why not? As it turns out, I enjoyed the experience much more than expected.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): In post-World War II Rome, jobs are scarce and poverty is rampant. Eligible workers wait in throngs outside the employment office every day desperately hoping that their name will be called for a position. Antonio Ricci (played by Lamberto Magggiorani) is just such a man, and when he finally is offered work, he can’t help but think of all the nice things he can buy for wife Maria (Lianella Carell) and son Bruno (Enzo Staiola).
The work entails hanging posters around the city and requires the use of a bicycle. Ricci has a bicycle, but it’s in the shop being repaired. He doesn’t have money to get it out, but Maria soon solves that problem by pawning her wedding sheets for the cash. Ricci’s relief at the prospects of becoming financially stable again is almost palpable, and he eagerly looks forward to his first day at work.
Very early in Ricci’s shift, he meets with a major setback: someone brazenly steals his bicycle right there in broad daylight on a crowded street. Ricci gives chase, but soon loses sight of the thief, dejectedly returning home to explain what happened. A few of his friends tell him that if he doesn’t find the bicycle that day, there would be no hope of ever recovering it again, as the thief will strip it down and sell the parts as quickly as possible.
The rest of the film then shows Ricci and Bruno grimly going from market to market in a futile attempt to find the stolen bicycle. After it becomes clear that they will never get the bicycle back, Ricci, in an act of utter desperation, steals a bicycle himself. He’s caught, however, and humiliatingly threatened with arrest right in front of his son. Realizing that he ended up no better than the first bicycle thief, Ricci dejectedly returns home.
My Reaction: Sometimes the simplest stories can be the most powerful, and I think Bicycle Thieves definitely fits into this category. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a whole heck of a lot transpires during the 95-minute running time, but Ricci’s character arc is the obvious focus. The way he is reduced to a thief himself, the way he suddenly sees how a man can be driven to such actions is a telling statement about human nature, and is beautifully handled in the film.
Certainly, Act II of Bicycle Thieves will seem incredibly boring to many modern viewers, so I doubt that this title gets much play outside of film school or snobbish viewing groups. More’s the pity, as the basic precept of this story is every bit as applicable today as it was 60 years ago.
Overall, Bicycle Thieves is deserving of its place on all of those “Best of” lists that directors and film societies release every few years. So-called classics are often hard to sit through, but that’s not the case here. I give the film 5 stars out of 5.