At the beginning of the film, it is easy to sympathize with Antonio—he wants to provide for his family in economically suffering post-war Italy. However, when his bike gets stolen, Antonio undergoes a stark change in character. As his quest to find his bicycle becomes more fruitless, he no longer upholds the high moral standards exhibited at the beginning of the film; rather, his self-pity makes him oblivious to the suffering around him. He continually neglects Bruno and is only shocked into parental concern once he hears about a young boy drowning. In addition to his hostile treatment of his son, Antonio also compromises his values by threatening people, visiting the fortune teller for advice, and attempting to steal a bike himself. Though Antonio makes mistakes, he never becomes the villain of the story. He is a vulnerable person with genuine flaws and contradictions whose quest for survival makes him compromise on his moral values. For these reasons, we still root for Antonio through the very end, and our unequivocal sympathy for the complex hero renders the downbeat, self-defeating finale all the more heartbreaking.
Bruno is one of Antonio and Maria’s children. Impoverishment has deprived Bruno of his innocence and the chance at a blissful, carefree childhood. Despite his young age, he works at a gas station to support his poverty-stricken family. Bruno is self-sufficient, rational, and kind. He seeks help from the police when his father appears to be in risky situations, he recognizes the immorality of Antonio’s theft, and before leaving for work, he remembers to close a window so that his infant sibling will stay warm. Bruno clearly admires Antonio, but he is in the unfortunate position of seeing his father indulge in his worst qualities—selfishness, obliviousness, carelessness—as the prospect of finding the bicycle becomes increasingly unlikely.
As Antonio’s wife, Maria is a reasonable, pragmatic presence throughout her small role in the film. While Antonio does not have a bike when he receives a job offer, Maria does not succumb to the seeming hopelessness of her husband’s predicament. Instead, she acts rationally and sells their sheets to repossess the bicycle, thereby illustrating her utmost commitment to her family. Maria is also a woman of faith; she visits the seer—or the “holy one”—to get guidance and foresight about her family and Antonio’s employment. She’s very much in love with Antonio, but we see how the strains of poverty affect their relationship.
While initially appearing to be an immoral, petty criminal, the film later humanizes the young thief. He is sickly and experiences a seizure (some audiences believe that he feigns the fit, but this impression speaks to an overly cynical perspective on the film). The thief also is revealed to live in even worse conditions than Antonio’s family, and he functions to enhance Bicycle Thieves’ major theme: the line between victim and criminal becomes progressively blurred in the face of economic despair.
The old man
Antonio identifies the old man as a suspect because he converses with the thief and appears to be involved in the crime. The old man initially pretends to be oblivious about the thief, but once Antonio continues to confront him in a church, he reveals the thief’s address. The old man appears to be another poor and helpless victim of the stalled Italian economy, and he seemingly relies on the services of the church to offer some relief to his suffering.
There are multiple cops in Bicycle Thieves, but they are all useless, inadequate, and uncaring. When Antonio reports the theft to the police, the officers don’t demonstrate any sympathy for him and merely urge him to look for the bike himself. One police officer is reluctant to have the bicycle seller announce the serial number of the for-sale bike and casts a disapproving glance at Antonio when the serial number does not match the one of his bike. The officer at the end of the film asserts that Antonio is fighting a lost cause. De Sica's depiction of these inadequate policemen serves as a critique of institutions that fail to protect the common man.
Baiocco is Antonio’s friend who accompanies him in the search for the stolen bicycle. Baiocco understands how the city’s underbelly works, so it’s not surprising that Antonio seeks help from him after the police prove to be unhelpful during Antonio’s time of desperation.
Maria attributes Antonio’s good fortune in obtaining a job to the seer’s supposed clairvoyance. Antonio condemns Maria for believing in the seer, but he ironically seeks spiritual guidance from the seer once his mission to find the bicycle fails. The seer offers Antonio trite and simple advice—“Either you find it right away or you never well”—yet Antonio spots the thief nearly immediately after the visit. While the seer’s abilities may not have any logical explanation, she reflects the efficacy of spirituality and faith when other institutions fail to provide any sense of optimism for the suffering.
The driver is one of Baiocco's friends who drives Antonio and Bruno to Porta Portese. During the drive, a heavy rain prompts the driver to deliver a reflective, astute diatribe about his lack of leisure time and hatred of films.
The thief's mother
The fiercely protective mother of the thief comes out of her apartment to bring her son pillows during his seizure. She defends her son and insists that he has a clean record.
Bicycle Thieves Questions and Answers
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Bicycle Thieves (also called The Bicycle Thief) study guide contains a biography of director Vittorio De Sica, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.