New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Off the Radar: ‘Bicycle Thieves’ blurs the lines between fiction and reality

Off the Radar is a weekly column surveying overlooked films available to students for free via NYU’s streaming partnerships. “Bicycle Thieves” is available to stream on Max and Kanopy.
(Max Van Hosen for WSN)

Italian filmmaker Vittorio De Sica was one of the pioneers of neorealism — a style of cinema defined by on-location shooting, non-professional actors and unpolished cinematography, among other elements. His 1948 picture, “Bicycle Thieves,” is arguably the best example of the film movement, employing a minimalist lens to capture moments of common humanity in working-class Italy. 

“Bicycle Thieves” follows Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a poor man living in Rome who lands a job putting up posters around the ancient city. While at work, his bicycle gets stolen, sending him and his 9-year-old son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) on a quest to track down the thief and reclaim their bike. 

The term neorealism is most commonly associated with the Italian film movement, which rose from the ashes of World War II and the fall of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy during the late 1940s. Italian neorealism defied romanticism and favored authenticity.

One of the trends De Sica adopted was the usage of non-professional actors, which allowed for more genuine and raw performances. The film presents a snapshot of the average day in post-World War II Italy through its authentic narrative form. The movie provides implicit social commentary as Antonio traverses the streets of a depression-ridden Rome. The actor’s true-to-life performance, having been a farmer himself, places the viewer in the shoes of the working class. The actors lived under the same economic conditions as the characters, making the performances even more natural and convincing. 

The viewer is introduced to Antonio’s son, Bruno, as a mature boy who is very much independent. Antonio often places the stolen bicycle’s importance before his son. Bruno almost gets hit by a car, trips over a curb and has to look for a street corner just to use the bathroom, yet Antonio doesn’t bat an eye. Bruno is a kid fundamentally stripped of his childhood as a result of postwar devastation. His mannerisms are much more mature than other children his age, though he maintains more juvenile desires, like wanting to enjoy a simple mozzarella sandwich the same way a group of wealthy children do. 

These sequences are executed through the film’s mise-en-scène, the elements that appear on-camera such as actors and production design. Antonio simply wants to provide his family with a better life, especially under the strenuous economic circumstances of the 1940s, and the lost bicycle represents his family’s future. De Sica’s neorealist and oftentimes powerfully humanist techniques in “Bicycle Thieves” are most prominently demonstrated in the film’s ending. Antonio, after having spent the entire film searching for the thief, resorts to stealing someone else’s bicycle in front of his son. 

This split-second decision made by Antonio wasn’t a gut reaction. His thievery represents his attempt to secure a new future for his family, but it is once again stripped away from him when he is justifiably caught. He remains ashamed of himself, an emotion only elevated after Bruno recognizes his father’s vulnerability. Antonio is forced to live with this final decision for the rest of his life. In a tender close-up, Bruno holds his father’s hand as they get lost in a crowd, leaving their future to the audience’s interpretation. 

The film’s gritty cinematography elevates De Sica’s profound yet utterly simplistic social commentary, brought to life with such authenticity by Maggiorani’s and Staiola’s staggeringly organic performances. After 75 years, “Bicycle Thieves” remains one of the most powerful, heartbreaking and indescribably human cinematic achievements.

Contact Yezen Saadah at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Yezen Saadah
Yezen Saadah, Editor-in-Chief
Yezen Saadah is a junior studying cinema studies, journalism and Middle Eastern studies. He's a lover of cinema, history, art and literature, and he enjoys writing about pretty much anything. If he isn't in the newsroom or at the movies, he's probably just trying to enjoy his day off. Contact him on Instagram @yezen.saadah or send tips to [email protected]

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