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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #194: Bicycle Thieves

Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is a sad tale of one man’s quest to provide for his family. Despite being set in post-World War II Rome and being shot in black and white, the film still has plenty of themes modern audiences can identify with and will probably be able to identify with for years to come. It doesn’t matter what country you live in or what century it is, plenty of people can sympathize with a workingman trying to make ends meet and trying to be a good man in the eyes of his son.

Like many people my favourite Italian movies are Sergio Leone Westerns, but that doesn’t really count since they are essentially American movies made by an Italian director. When I watched Bicycle Thieves on Netflix last fall I knew I wasn’t going to get a gun-toting Western or gangster movie, but as fan of cinema in general I will watch anything. Plus having travelled to Italy and taken a few Italian courses it’s always fun to watch an Italian movie to practice the language. Turns out I am a bit rusty and still needed the subtitles.

In a plot that would decades later influence the much lighter Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, the film follows Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) as they search Rome for his stolen bicycle. This may seem like a trivial quest for anyone who can afford a bike or even a car, but for Antonio it is a matter of keeping his job and food on the table. He needs the bicycle for his job posting bills all over the city and he already pawned a prized family possession to buy the bike in the first place. No bike, no job, and no money for his wife and two kids. It is that important.

When the bicycle is stolen Antonio does what most people would do and tries to give chase, but the annoying thief has an accomplice that helps him escape. The next step of course is to tell the police who of course can’t do much to help him since finding a stolen bicycle in Rome is like looking for needle in one big pile of haystacks. Antonio’s friends help him by searching at a market where stolen good are sold, but their efforts provide no results. However Antonio and Bruno eventually spot the thief and give chase.

As the day goes by and the thief proves elusive you feel their frustration build. The two of them are doing everything right, but life just won’t give them a break. To take a respite from the pursuit, Antonio decides to buy his son lunch at a restaurant, but he can’t afford anything too expensive off the menu. The sight of a rich family enjoying a much bigger meal does not boost his morale. The grass definitely always looks greener on the other side of the fence.

As Antonio’s desperation reaches its peak he decides to do the wrong thing and the look on his son’s face when he is caught in the act speaks volumes. It is bad enough Antonio finds himself in a position where he cannot provide for his family, but his actions to solve the situation end up with his son ashamed of him. Amazingly both Maggiorani and Staiola were untrained non-actors when the movie was shot, which does add a dose of realism to the production.    

Bicycle Thieves is the definition of what comes to mind when you hear the words “foreign movie.” It is old, in black and white, sad, and requires subtitles unless you speak the language. However the story in undeniably touching and its focus on characters struggling to make ends meet easily gives it its status as a classic for the ages.


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