by Judy Geater
It seems like such a small story. Yet, through the theft of a bike, this powerful Italian neo-realist film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, shows up the struggle which was the reality of daily life for so many children and parents. It also brilliantly explores the relationship between a father and a young son put under pressure by the world around them, two figures in a crowd.
Cinematographer Carlo Montuori’s stark black-and-white photography, showing the streets of post-war Rome and endless small details of everyday life, always has something going on in the background. There’s a feeling throughout of all the other stories surrounding this one, all the other poor people who are facing their own struggles. Nobody else has time to worry about this one family’s suffering.
Most of the main cast were not professional actors, which helps to give the atmosphere of bleak realism. The little boy, Bruno, whose haunting expression is one of the images from the film which lingers in the mind, was played by Enzo Staiola, aged seven, who turned up to watch the start of shooting. His father, Antonio, was portrayed by factory worker Lamberto Maggiorani, a non-professional actor whose real-life circumstances were not so far removed from those of the character he played. The imdb tells how he was laid off from the factory after making the film, and found it hard to get further roles as an actor.
At the start of the film, Antonio, a jobless father in impoverished post-war Rome, is struggling to support his wife, young son and baby. One day, he is finally the one picked out of a crowd of hungry hopefuls to win a job putting up film posters. However, he doesn’t think he will be able to take the job, because he doesn’t have a bicycle. Or rather, he does have one, but it has been pawned and there’s no money to get it out of hock until he gets a job. So it’s a vicious circle which there seems to be no prospect of squaring.
That is, until his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell) decides to strip their expensive sheets from the bed, left over from her dowry and the only valuable items she possesses, and take them to the pawn shop in place of the bicycle. The family will sleep on cheap sheets in future. There is a haunting shot of the expensive linen in the pawn shop, piled up high with endless sheets given up by other families.
The father looks so proud as he carefully pastes up the posters of Rita Hayworth, advertising a glamorous film in a completely different world from this one. But, as he stands on a ladder admiring his handiwork, a man lurking in the shadows – with a desperate look in his eye similar to that of Antonio earlier – suddenly emerges to snatch the bike and rush off with it.
Antonio and Bruno then set off on a chase through Rome, trying to get the bike back, but it seems the thief is always a step ahead. The fluctuating relationship between father and son is touchingly portrayed, as each tries to live up to the other’s expectations, with inevitable disappointments and conflict along the way.
Too often, though, the hard-pressed dad forgets all about his son in his quest for the bike. It’s quite painful to watch this at times, as the little boy continues to follow so hopefully, only to be ignored, snapped at or even slapped – although you know that beneath it all the father is devoted to his son. There are some happy moments, like the scene where Antonio decides to treat the tired and hungry Bruno to a pizza, although even then he can’t stop himself from calculating the cost. But most of the time the mood is one of frustration and anger.
As the search goes on, the bicycle becomes a symbol of so much that the family wants, and in particular so much that Bruno hopes for. If the bike is found then everything will be all right, he thinks, and he goes on hoping as a child hopes, even though really Antonio knows in his heart that this search is hopeless.
Eventually, and inevitably, the desperate Antonio is driven to steal a bike himself – just as the thief who took his bike in the first place was driven to do so. Now he too is one of the city’s bicycle thieves. But, unlike the more expert thief who took his, Antonio is caught and accused right away, and also has the humiliation of knowing that Bruno saw his shame.
The young son’s devastation here is the film’s unforgettable climax, and really the key moment in looking at this as a film about childhood, since he discovers in the most painful way imaginable that his father is flawed and all too human. But then there is the poignant ending where the child decides to take his dad’s hand, and the two of them move away together. Their future is even bleaker now than it was at the start, since there is no bike and nothing left to pawn, but they are still facing it together.