Bicycle Thieves opens with a large crowd of men exiting a bus and gathering around an employment office in Valmelaina. Eager to work, they attempt to ascend the stairs of the office, but an employment officer commands them to stay at the bottom. The officer shouts out an unemployed man’s name, who does not appear to be in the crowd. Another man runs out and finds Antonio Ricci, informing him that the officer called his name. Like everyone else, Antonio is a family man desperate for work in the lackluster postwar Italian economy, so he rushes to re-join the group in hopes of receiving a job. Meanwhile, the bricklayers in the crowd say that they’re starving to death, and the officer apathetically says there’s nothing he can do.
Miraculously, the employment officer offers Antonio a job gluing up posters all over the city. He tells Antonio to visit his employer with paperwork and a work permit; the officer also notifies him that he will need a bicycle for the job. Antonio, having just pawned his bike to feed his family, tells the officer, “I have one...but not at the moment. I’ll have it in a couple of days. I’ll go on foot for a few days.” The unsympathetic officer says that if Antonio doesn't have a bike, he will offer the job to someone else. Other men begin shouting, declaring they have bicycles and can take Antonio’s job, but most of them are in different categories like construction, which is against the employment agency's policy. Desperate, Antonio lies and says he will report to work the following morning with a bicycle.
Antonio then finds his wife, Maria. He informs her of the job offer but says he can’t accept it because he is unable to repossess his bike immediately, lamenting, “Damn the day I was born!” Maria rebuffs Antonio's hysterical self-pity; she rationally decides to sell their bed sheets for extra money. She reasons, “We can sleep without sheets.”
Later, Antonio and Maria go to pawn shop and receive 7,500 Italian lire, which is more than enough for Antonio to retrieve his bike from the same warehouse. While still in the massive warehouse, Antonio notices the huge quantities of sheets also stored in the pawn shop when an employee climbs a 20-foot tower, heaped with similar bundles of linen, to stow Maria and Antonio’s sheets at the top.
With newfound hope, Antonio and Maria exit the shop with the bicycle and make their way to claim his job. Even when he enters the office, Antonio fiercely clutches his bicycle, and one of the men sneers, “Put that down. What are you afraid of?” Antonio’s employer tells him that he will begin the job tomorrow morning; he also learns that he will make 6,000 bimonthly, plus family allowance and overtime, much to his excitement. Antonio approaches Maria and asks her to tighten the strap on his cap so he can look professional for work.
Before returning home, Maria wants to visit a woman's apartment in Via della Paglia. Without revealing the identity of the woman, Maria goes inside the apartment without Antonio, who waits outside. A group of elderly woman approach Antonio and ask him where the “holy one” lives, to which Antonio replies, “The holy one? I don’t know.” His curiosity culminates once he spots a woman walking down the apartment's stairs in tears. Antonio asks a child to watch his bike so he can investigate what Maria is doing there.
Antonio discovers that Maria is visiting a seer, and Maria justifies this visit by claiming the seer predicted Antonio’s employment. Since the fortune teller’s prediction was correct, Maria now feels obliged to give her 50 lira. Finding the whole encounter frivolous and senseless, Antonio says, "how can a woman with two children and a head on her shoulders listen to all this stupid nonsense? You must have money to throw away” to Maria. Though frustrated by Antonio’s outburst, Maria is eventually convinced to return home without offering the seer money.
The next morning, Antonio’s young son, Bruno, cleans Antonio’s bike. Bruno notices a dent in the bike and humorously tells his father that he would have said something to the pawn shop owners. Maria makes egg sandwiches and fixes Antonio’s cap; Antonio playfully manhandles Maria, who fights him off but smiles. Before leaving for work with his father, Bruno closes a window so his infant sibling will stay warm. They two men say a final goodbye to Maria, each with an infectious smile on their face.
De Sica uses an understated “show, don’t tell” technique in the crucial exposition within these opening scenes of Bicycle Thieves. In the film’s central setting of desolate, gloomy postwar Rome, we know Antonio and his family are poor, but it don’t take Ma Joad-esque speeches for us to get that. Instead, it is Antonio and Maria’s desperate actions that reflect their quiet anguish and dilapidation. We know they are limited with their resources, forced to choose between one necessity or another: food or transportation, the fundamental basics of comfort (their sheets) or employment (the bike).
Antonio’s resilient family is forced to make risky decisions out of the sheer wish to survive, and this is especially evident in the closing scenes of Part 1, after Maria pawns their sheets so they can afford to retrieve Antonio’s bicycle from the shop. In the morning of Antonio’s first day of work, we see a jubilant Maria make Antonio breakfast; we see a winsome Bruno joke about Antonio’s bike; we see an infant peacefully lie in bed. This is the joy of Antonio’s life; this is what is at stake for him. If he fails at his job and in turn proves unable to provide for his family, he will have nothing—no real sense of purpose and happiness. These opening scenes cement both the importance of family in Antonio’s life and the severe torment of destitution, thus rendering our active and abiding emotional connection with Antonio, the film’s protagonist and complex hero.
Similarly, the film’s expository scenes quickly establish the bike’s importance to Antonio’s livelihood. At first, the bicycle is the sine qua non for Antonio’s employment since the billposter position requires it for transport. However, we soon realize the bike represents so much more than the potential for labor—it symbolizes hope, pride, and social mobility. This is signaled by his family’s desperation to retrieve the bike from the pawn shop; they know it stands for an all-too-rare opportunity amidst Italy’s economic despair. The possession of the bicycle will help overcome their social and economic disadvantages and likewise enable upward mobility, as the job pays well and will increase Antonio’s standard of living. When Antonio and Maria sacrifice their linens and get Antonio’s bike out of the shop, they are equipped with a newfound sense of hope, overjoyed at this chance for a better life.
Notably, Antonio does not act as a mere stand-in for all poor, working-class men in Italy. Antonio is an individual; we see the unveiling of his unique, flawed personality, his idiosyncratic dynamic with his family, and his struggle to attain personal autonomy and employment in Rome. While Antonio’s story is a specific one, it also reflects universal themes like the overarching, calamitous impacts of poverty. A number of images within these opening scenes illustrate Anotnio's distinctive trials and tribulations in obtaining employment, as well as the systemic predicament of poverty, which damages countless citizens’ livelihoods in Italy.
One of the most memorable shots of Bicycle Thieves is the slow pan of the vertical tower stacked with countless sets of pawned sheets, which are strikingly similar to the ones Maria and Antonio sold to retrieve the bike. The pan reveals over twice as many shelves and bundles as had been visible from the ground in previous shots of the shop, and the sheer number of pawned sheets forces us to think of how many unseen Antonios have experienced the same basic struggle of sacrificing valuables to simply survive. Each bundle symbolizes the hardships that other families endure in postwar Rome, which successively evokes the massive economic turmoil in the city.
Also, when Antonio reclaims his bike from the pawn shop, we see racks of similar looking bikes hang in the back room, impeding their owners’ capability to make a decent living. In the same scene, Maria approaches the counter to speak to the clerk and sell her sheets. We see Maria, a line of people behind her, and constant movement within the frame. Through this sequence’s mis-en-scene and camera placement, we are reminded that Maria and Antonio are not alone in their suffering; people are in similar doomed straits and have to surrender their possessions for money.
The first scene also demonstrates how Antonio’s story is not singular nor unique. Poverty and unemployment afflicted countless people in postwar Rome. Once Antonio is offered a job and says he doesn’t a bike on hand, various members of the anonymous crowd of workers shout that they have one and could take the job instead of Antonio. These declarations illuminate Antonio’s lack of individuality—his job could easily be fulfilled by another man desperate for work in the severely destitute late 1940s Italian economy. Thus, even though we are closely following Antonio and his quest to find his bike in forthcoming scenes, the working conditions of Italy are not forgotten.