Bicycle Thieves (often listed under the title The Bicycle Thief) is a landmark 1948 Italian neorealist film directed by Vittorio De Sica. The film was adapted from Luigi Bartolini’s novel of the same name by Cesare Zavattini, who was one of De Sica’s longtime collaborators (and who also worked with many other visionary Italian filmmakers of the 20th century: Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Federico Fellini). The film stars Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio Ricci, an unemployed man who struggles to find work in the barren and devastated economy of postwar Rome. He finds a coveted job hanging up posters, which requires a bicycle for transport. When Antonio’s employment becomes jeopardized once his bike gets stolen on his first day of work, he and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) desperately search the city for it. The deceptively simple set-up progresses into a tragic examination of social rectitude, father-son relationships, and the complex moral issues confronting decent and marginalized members of society.
Bicycle Thieves is hailed as the centerpiece of Italian neorealism, which emerged in the late 40s as a rejection of the glossy, state-controlled “white telephone” films popular in the 30s and a reaction to the penury and despair in post-war Italy. Filmmakers like De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Giuseppe De Santis took their cameras into the streets, relied on natural light, and hired non-professional actors to produce low-budgeted films about working-class life amidst the impoverished aftermath of World War II. Neorealism remains one of the most celebrated film movements in history for its technical innovations, the gritty realism of its stories, and the rich, poignant resonance of its characters.
As usual in neorealism, Bicycle Thieves provides astute social and political commentary on post-war distress. We see Antonio and his family attempt to survive and rebuild their lives with little success. The rich specificity of Antonio’s story opens out onto widely-appealing universal themes like man’s desperation to survive and the calamitous impacts of poverty. In his review of the film, The New York Times' Bosley Crowther commended De Sica’s ability to both evoke the specific and the universal, stating, “And while he [De Sica] has limited his vista to a vivid cross-section of Roman life, he actually is holding a mirror up to millions of civilized men.”
Though some critics condemn Bicycle Thieves’ socially critical themes and unabashed sentimentality, most shared Crowther’s overwhelming praise for the film upon its initial release. In 1950, it won an Honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Film released in the United States. When the British film magazine Sight & Sound published its first poll of filmmakers and critics in 1952, Bicycle Thieves was voted the greatest film of all time a mere 4 years after its release. Bicycle Thieves remains well-beloved today; it’s regularly ranked among acclaimed films like Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane (1941), Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
In addition to its near universal praise, Bicycle Thieves has inspired countless filmmakers to authentically render reality and injustices faced by the poor. In particular, the film was a major influence on Jafar Panahi and Dariush Mehrjui—2 key leaders of the Iranian New Wave. Bicycle Thieves is also featured in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), and the 2nd season premiere of Master of None pays an extended, fascinating homage to the film.
It is not difficult to see why Bicycle Thieves is so revered by filmmakers, movie buffs, and critics. Its simple premise depicts universal aspects of the human condition, portraying humans as flawed, vulnerable people who will abandon their morals and do whatever is necessary to survive. With Bicycle Thieves, De Sica and Zavattini introduce a cinema with a fervent social conscience, poetic eloquence, and striking pathos. De Sica and Zavattini present us with a true, modern, and profound view of human life, one that works as a biting social statement, a sentimental study of a father and son, and a highlight of the 20th century’s most significant and influential film movements. Perhaps French film theorist and critic André Bazin described the film best by saying, "No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality...there is no more cinema.”