The Bicycle Thief (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica
Italian neorealism is a style of film set amongst the poor and working class, typically dealing with issues of poverty and dispair. This was the backdrop of the Italian landscape after the second World War, ravaged by a depression and moral decay. The Bicycle Thief is set dab in the middle of it, telling the story of a working class stiff trying to recover his stolen bike, but really that's just a plot device to show the destitution of Italian society. It shows the extraordinary lengths and despair that people must go through in order to simply survive.
The film opens in the front of an unemployment office where hordes of people wait around for jobs to come up. Antonio has been out of work for some time now but gets a lucky break when he gets a job putting posters up around town, but the only requirement is that he must have a bicycle to get around. Antonio, with a family to feed and desperate for work, does not have a bicycle but lies and says he does, one of the moral compromises he must make to get by. In order to get a bike, Antonio must pawn his bed sheets, his wife's dowry. The sheets are bundled up into a sack and pawned off. In a telling shot, a man takes the sack in the back room and throws it into a gigantic storage unit of similar sacks revealing that Antonio isn't the only person in this position. His story, his plight, can be anyone's. Antonio buys the bike and is ecstatic to begin work. As luck would have it, on his very first day someone steals his bike right in front of him. Needless to say, Antonio is crushed and must get his bike back. Without it, his family will starve.
So Antonio and his young son spend the next hour or so of the movie roaming the streets of Rome trying to find the bike, a fool's errand if there ever was one. They don't have much luck and Antonio grows increasingly desperate as it becomes harder to hide his anguish and helplessness. And that is basically the entire film. You just watch them wandering around searching for the bike and Antonio's growing desperation. As already mentioned, the simplistic plot is just the tour guide for the neorealistic setting. In their wanderings of Rome, the viewer gets an up close look at the poverty and social conditions of post WW2 Italy. Take these two images for example. What else really needs to be said about them?
It starts to get really good when Antonio ends up running into the thief and has a heated confrontation with him. It is not clear, however, if he actually is the thief or not. After all, Antonio only had a quick glimpse of the thief's face during the theft. The bike is nowhere to be found and the kid has a clean record. Despite no proof or collaborating witnesses, Antonio is convinced the kid is scum. The gathering crowd watching the spectacle become wary of Antonio's unfounded accusations as he grows increasingly hostile. Eventually, Antonio must back down and retreat empty handed, dejected as ever before. What follows is perhaps one of the most dramatic and emotional moments captured on film. For those who have not seen The Bicycle Thief yet, I won't go into details but it is pretty powerful stuff and basically makes the entire movie.
As great as the last act is, the rest of the movie can be a bit tedious and dull. The single-minded quest to find the bicycle is not powerful or compelling enough to carry the middle as there is only so much of this story you can tell before you must get on with it. While the search seems to be carried out with meticulous and inordinate detail, it loses its impact along the way. Maybe I was distracted or tired at the time, but my emotional connection to Antonio during the middle was wavering as the search for the bike seemed empty. I could sense and see Antonio's desperation, but I could not feel it, until the powerful last act of course. Regardless, The Bicycle Thief's status as a world classic is well founded. Few other movies tell so much with so little or have the raw emotional impact of its closing shot.