Stories about the common man emphasizing social issues, scenes shot in actual locations, and the use of non-professional actors – are the key ingredients of the Neorealist film movement in postwar Italy, which this film is one of its prominent expressions.
Directed by Vittorio De Sica and adapted for the screen by Cesare Zavattini based loosely on the novel by Luigi Bartolini, the film tells a simple story. A man’s bicycle gets stolen and he looks for them. No wonder De Sica had difficulties to finance the film. You might say it’s a film about nothing.
Yet, there is so much more.
De Sica vividly paints a reality of dire economic conditions with consistent use of crowds in various contexts; fighting to get a job in the opening scene, in an endless line at the bus station, leaving a stadium, and waiting for a piece of bread at the church. Everything seems like a huge struggle. So against this backdrop of rough settings, even the sense of finally finding a job comes with a catch. Antonio, played beautifully by Lamberto Maggiorani, needs to have a bicycle in order to get the job. His wife (Lianella Carell) figures out a way to get back their pawned bicycle and off he goes on his first day on the job.
The scene of swarms of morning commuters either on bicycles, on foot or on overflowing buses pans nicely to Antonio’s facial expression of pride of being able to provide for his family – is very strong. Against all odds he overcame all obstacles and found a way to make a living.
Finding a job, and figuring out a way to keep it are key elements De Sica uses in order to substantiate the buildup of the accomplishment and the earth shattering sensation when this precious locomotive is being stolen the next day, thus crumbling Antonio’s aspirations for a better future. Emotions of deep haplessness and loneliness bring out powerful performances from father and son – two non-professional actors that could have probably experienced such predicaments in their personal lives.
Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are then thrown into an impossible quest of finding the bicycle somewhere around Rome. The father-son relationship throughout this journey is a rare examination of weighing priorities; finding the bicycles, the key to survival or recognizing the son’s needs as extenuated in the river scene.
The message of the film is clear. No matter how low you sink, the unconditional bonds you have with your loved ones should override any external threats.