But if the film is allowed to wait long enough–until the filmmakers are dead, until neorealism is less an inspiration than a memory–“The Bicycle Thief” escapes from its critics and becomes, once again, a story. It is happiest that way.Roger Ebert on Bicycle Thieves, 1999.
The length of time I have taken off from reviewing movies has become a bit of a meme among my friends. Things have hit hard with COVID-19, moving away from home, and generally having a writer’s block the size of the Korean DMZ. All things considered, it has been good to get some time to think about the way I approach movies, and generally look into some movies I might never see. It is for this reason that I have delved deep into the ratings of IMDB to find the top community rated films of all time (to be perfectly clear, I bought a poster of the top 100 list for me and my girlfriend, and we’re watching a movie every week from the list). Let’s have a look at the first movie from the list: Bicycle Thieves.
Greatly praised by critics and film lovers alike, Bicycle Thieves is an Italian neorealism film that depicts a sorrowful tale of what a man will do to protect himself and his family in a horrible time. Set in post-WW2 Rome, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is selected for a simple job by the Cities labor department: all he needs to do is bike around town and put up posters. On day one his bicycle is stolen, forcing him and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) to pursue the thief through the remainder of the film. It is crushing, it is tense, and it has completely shattered my writer’s block.
Oh, But The History of Film Is Grand: Neorealism
If we’re going to understand why this film is the way it is, we must look at the context surrounding filmmaking in Italy after the Second World War. Italy, like many countries on either side, was devastated by grand socio-economic shifts before entering the war and was left in a sad state after. The working poor were affected greatly, and film had began to capture this. Neorealism became a popular movement, using nonprofessionals and streets filled with pedestrians to illustrate the art of real life.
These hallmarks of the genre are seen from the first moments in Bicycle Thieves. Antonio’s character is an out-of-work family man, waiting in line for any scraps the labor department will offer. He is fueled by the fear of his family being in destitution. When the mention of bicycles is first brought up as a requirement for his new job, Antonio lies and says he has one, despite him having pawned it to afford food and shelter for his family.
As opposed to similar stories showing class struggle as a warfare between the rich and the poor, I don’t really think that is the spirit of Bicycle Thieves, or even neorealism. In the restaurant scene where Antonio and Bruno are enjoying sandwiches and wine, Bruno looks on to another table to see a rich family eating in luxury. It is clearly intended for Bruno to weigh the luxury of the better off family against his own struggle for a bike, but I don’t think that it is meant to be anything more than an observation. Neorealism is intended to portray working class stories as more like parables than events taking place in our world. Bruno is looking on to a family that will never notice him, but he holds nothing in his heart for them: he’s too poor to worry about what goes on a rich family’s spaghetti.
The Worst We Can Do: Selfish, “Good” Deeds?
The thing I love most about Bicycle Thieves is how morally ambiguous each character is. Much like how people operate in the real world, there is no “one true” answer for any situation. In the film, we see that poor Antonio’s bike is stolen, and that seems wrong. Later on, we discover that the thief (Vittorio Antonucci) suffers from a medical condition, belonging to a family that has it much worse than Antonio’s. One single theft, a theft that has possibly ruined Antonio and his entire family, was done by people even more desperate than Antonio.
When Antonio finally confronts and threatens the thief with murder, the entire community surrounding them steps up for the weakened thief. They don’t know or care what the boy has done: they only care that a young boy from their community is being threatened by a deranged looking man, and that said man intends to kill him. There’s no way that a group, so deeply affected by post-war depression, is going to let something like this happen to a kid; no crime a child has done could deserve the death penalty, could it?
Finally, the movie does the unspeakable to us by finally revealing the last card in its hand. When brought to his last straw, Antonio attempts to do something wrongfully done unto him: he attempts to steal a stranger’s bike. Thus far, we have seen that people do things in the name of blind self-interest and have made away without any consequences. Sadly, in the case of Antonio, he is caught and roughly walked out of the film to be sent to jail. Both Antonio and the original thief had every justifiable reason for stealing, and in the end they were both caught and judged by a crowd. Maybe if a world is cruel enough, we’ll all be made bicycle thieves.
Final Verdict: 4 out of 5
For being the 100th placement in a list, Bicycle Thieves is a deeply moving and enjoyable film. As my girlfriend and I were watching, we were jumping out of our seats and screaming at how cruel a fate Antonio was dealt. Never have I been so ashamed of a main character for doing what he sees as the right thing for him and his own. The movie is definitely worth the money to rent or buy
How To Follow Along At Home, And Last Thoughts
If you’d like to follow along with me from home, then do so using IMDB’s top rated movies of all time. It won’t be perfect as I’m using a collector’s movie poster to view my 100 (this isn’t a paid promotion, so watch the list however you want with whatever means). The numbers will be slightly off because the ratings are in a constant state of flux, but rest assured I’ll try to sneak some of the movies in that aren’t on my poster. I will continue to be down in the comments of each of these posts to talk about the movies and retouch.
Here’s the link to the poster if you’re so inclined (Again, not a paid promotion). Keep in mind that on the current date of posting (March 14, 2021), Amazon workers are striking for unionization. This is an easier way to get the poster, but find other means if you can and go support the workers by refusing Amazon services until the strike is over.
It’s really been a wild ride since the Alien franchise posts, and I really want to get back to this. The meme of postponing articles is over, so get ready for more average reviews!