Antonio Ricci has been unemployed for more than two years when he finally gets a job putting up posters. The one condition of employment is that he must have a bicycle - which he is more than happy to pawn the family linen for. After a single day of happy employment, tragedy strikes when the bike is stolen. He and his son set out to find the missing bike...
It's often stated that the casting of Cary Grant in this seminal work of neo-realism would have fatally undermined Vittorio De Sica's intention of presenting an authentic snapshot of everyday life in postwar Italy. Yet, non-professionals Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola were both selected according to typage and such deliberation reveals the care which De Sica lavished on this meticulous recreation of backstreet Rome. Nothing was left to chance in his pastiche of spontaneity, with the extras being choreographed as rigidly as the leads to ensure that every expression and gesture illuminated the director's precise deep-focus compositions.
Inspired by a Luigi Bartolini novel, Bicycle Thieves is clearly a product of its times, with unemployment, poverty and the dejection of defeat very much to the fore. Yet, for all its political ramifications, its enduring appeal lies in the very human story at its heart, which focusses on a father's proud determination to sustain his household and a son's crisis of faith in his hero. By emphasising the absurdity and fatalism of daily life, De Sica questions the validity of competing contemporary solutions to society's problems. The pious, the bourgeois and the proletarian alike leave Antonio and Bruno to their fate, as they are each fully aware that everyone's first duty is to themselves in such dire circumstances. Indeed, De Sica consistently stresses the impotence of socialism by showing the pair being shunned and menaced by crowds and mobs of people who acquiesce in and exploited the uncontrollable cyclical misery of their neighbours. It's no accident that Antonio is searching for a Fides (`Faith') bicycle, as the film draws inspiration from both the New Testament and Dante's Divine Comedy. Yet, De Sica insists that family unity is more crucial to social rejuvenation than any religious or political creed. Nevertheless, he still undercuts the surface sentimentality of the climactic reunion by reminding us that Antonio has lost both his bike and his job and that inevitably tougher times lie ahead.
One of the great, perfect crystalisations of a specific point in time into a particular film, this is one of the greatest cinematic experiences ever.