Bicycle Thieves is one of those films that ends up on every Film History syllabus. It shouldn’t be avoided, but I think that it appreciates to a viewer who has actually had to live and scrounge to make ends meet in the real world. It certainly has done so for me and will probably do so again when I have children of my own. In post-war Italy, times are tough and jobs are non-existent. Ricci, the main character, somehow manages to get a job posting bills. The only requirement is that he needs a bike for transportation. Currently his bike is sitting in a pawn shop. His wife decides to pawn their sheets so that they can get the bike back and Ricci can take the job. On his first day, his Fides gets stolen by a gang of thieves. Thankfully it is the weekend, so Ricci can spend the rest of the movie looking for one bike and one thief among thousands in all of Rome. If this brief sketch isn’t hardcore enough for you, the rest of the film, and its attendant details should do the trick. At every step of the way De Sica makes sure that Ricci gets the merda end of the stick.
This Passion is made all the more powerful by the actors playing the parts. Lamberto Maggiorani [who plays Ricci] and Jim Caviezel bear an eerie resemblence to each other, both have long-suffering but stoic faces. Enzo Staiola [who plays Ricci’s son Bruno] is perhaps the cutest and most feisty little guy in any film ever. As they travel together throughout Rome, searching for the bicycle, Ricci must continually put on a brave face to maintain the hope in his son, even as his own desperation grows. They search the bike market to no avail, and Bruno attracts a child molester while Ricci accosts a bike mechanic. Nothing bad happens to Bruno, but it is obvious that Ricci is being driven to distraction by the loss of his Fides. Later, he even disrupts a prayer service [for a Roman Roman Catholic to disrupt a Catholic service in Rome…] as he tries to track down the boy who stole his bike. Even when he succeeds at this, the boy turns out to be epileptic and an entire neighborhood turns against Ricci. In the end, he attempts to steal a bike in front of his terrified son, and even fails at this. Only at the mercy of the victim is Ricci set free. Ricci and Bruno, both crying, walk into the crowd.
It is definitely the small things that turn this film into a masterpiece of destruction. Ricci, the man of the family, has no job — although his wife and even Bruno are employed. He is completely emasculated through no fault of his own, and in the end, his young son is the only one who can offer him love and support. Bruno doesn’t understand why his father would have done something so horrible as steal a bike, but he realizes that papa is in serious pain and offers the only thing he has to give, his hand. When Ricci’s control finally breaks, the viewer is sitting right at the bottom of the barrel with him. It all sounds a bit mawkish in my description, but the film isn’t melodramatic at all. It is heartrending because of its realism; and the dedicated, exacting development of the plot. The small things add up to something that no man can face alone; a society with no use and no pity for him, in that order.