Set in post-World War II Rome, The Bicycle Thief tells a simple story well, relying for its impact on gritty realism and emotional verity. There are no subplots, there are just a few key characters, the dialogue is the day-to-day talk of poor people struggling to survive – not the ingredients for heady debate over coffee after the movie.
Still, it is a film one will not quickly forget. Director Vittorio de Sica pioneered a lean, stark presentation with nonprofessional actors. The style, with its subject matter based on hard postwar life, epitomizes Italian neorealism. Here we follow the fortune of Antonio, a family man whose wife pawns their household linens so that they can reclaim from the same pawnshop a bicycle that is required for a job he has been offered. Jobs are scarce and the family is poor; much depends on possession of the bike.
The bicycle is stolen on Antonio’s first day at work and he and his young son search the streets of Rome in hopes of recovering it. A series of frustrating episodes mark the day, tension and desperation growing as chances for recovering the bicycle, and with it, their dashed hopes, fade. The events of the day, from a confrontation with a suspect and his neighbors, to a respite with an ill afforded restaurant meal, to a visit to a fortune teller have a cumulative effect, deepening our understanding of, and feelings for, father and young son. Their humanity glows, even through their misery, and their despair becomes ours.