After leaving the seer’s apartment, Antonio and Bruno suddenly spot the young thief. Antonio chases the thief into a brothel, full of women ordering Antonio to leave. The women attempt to kick Antonio out, but Antonio finds the thief in the dining room and demands that he come outside to talk. After much commotion, Antonio confronts the thief and angrily tells him to give him back the bicycle. The young man denies the accusations, and a hostile crowd forms, comprised of the thief’s neighbors.
Members of the crowd condemn Antonio for making accusations; amidst the arguing, Bruno departs the crowd and seeks out a police officer. While Bruno is away, the thief suddenly falls to the ground and has a seizure. The neighbors begin treating Antonio more aggressively, stating, “Be sure before you accuse someone,” “You won’t get away with this,” and “Besides getting a good beating, you could sued for libel.” The boy’s mother comes out of her apartment with pillows to help her son. Blaming Antonio for provoking the thief’s current health condition, the crowd gangs up and begins to physically force Antonio out of the neighborhood, to which Antonio responds, “Cowards, ganging up on one man!”
Thankfully, Bruno brings back a policeman, who demands the thief’s mother to show the officer her apartment. The apartment appears to be even in worse condition than Antonio’s, and after a quick search, the bicycle is nowhere in sight. The policeman and Antonio then converse about the thief. The officer asks if anyone could testify against the young man. Antonio admits he’s the only one who would be able to identify the young man as the thief, as he did not get the names of any witnesses. The officer then asks Antonio if he is positive that the young man is the thief, and Antonio says, “Of course I’m sure.”
Bringing Antonio to the window to overlook the angry mob, the officer asserts that all of the young man’s malicious neighbors would testify for the thief. The cop then claims that Antonio is fighting a worthless battle, since there's no evidence, and a jaded Antonio replies, “If you only knew what this means to me.” Apathetic to Antonio’s suffering, the officer definitively asks Antonio if he wants to press charges, and Antonio walks away with despair, with Bruno following behind him. The crowd keeps shouting at Antonio as he leaves, saying that he must never come back to the neighborhood and accuse people again. As they exit the area, Bruno is nearly hit by two cars; Antonio, unsurprisingly, takes no notice.
With the day almost over, Antonio is more desperate than ever. He and Bruno sit on a curb outside of a packed football stadium. With the game underway, thousands of locked bikes await their owners, but Antonio spots an unattended bicycle in the distance near a doorway. Conflicted and agitated at the sight of other people streaming past him with their bicycles, he paces back and forth, finally giving Bruno some money to take a streetcar to Monte Sacro. Bruno rushes to the car but misses it.
Antonio approaches the unguarded bicycle and finally summons to courage to ride off with it. The outcry from pedestrians is immediate, with Bruno stunned to witness a group of men force his father off the bike. The bicycle’s owner slaps the hat, a symbol for pride, off Antonio’s head, and Bruno runs into the irate crowd, weeping, “Papa! Papa!” One member of the crowd slaps Antonio in the face, another tells Bruno to “beat it.” An oncoming streetcar divides the crowd; the remaining group of four or five men muscle Antonio toward the police station.
Bruno briefly stays behind the crowd to pick up Antonio’s hat. Upon seeing a distraught Bruno, the bike's owner compassionately decides to not press charges against Antonio or report the theft to the police. The other men, reminiscent of the mob in the thief’s neighborhood, continue to taunt Antonio, who walks away with Bruno. Bruno hands Antonio back his hat. Walking amid a huge, anonymous crowd, Antonio holds his head in shame and begins to cry. Bruno grasps his father’s hand; the father and son continue walking home and disappear into a crowd.
The themes of ineffective institutions, the individual against the group, and abject poverty each culminate in the moving, somber last act of Bicycle Thieves. Throughout its run-time, the film showcases a series of social institutions, structures, bureaucracies, and rules which express an indifference to Antonio and his desperate situation. Of these institutions, it is perhaps the police who most glaringly manifest this inefficiency and inhumanity.
In Part 5, Bruno fetches a cop, who ensures Antonio’s safety from the malicious crowd of the thief’s neighbors but fails at all other aspects of his job. He encourages Antonio to not press charges against the thief due to the lack of evidence. Unless Antonio was to have forced a confession out of the thief, the police officer is likely correct in these assertions; Antonio does not have much of a case without other witnesses. However, by exerting such subjective judgment on Antonio and urging him to suppress his wish to press charges against the thief, the officer abuses the power of his position. The mission of the police centers on attending to the needs and wants of the public, but this particular cop uses his authoritative voice to effectively deny Antonio his right to press charges. This is a blatant example of corrupt and backwards-looking law enforcement, and the police officer’s uselessness intensifies once he responds apathetically to Antonio’s claim, “If you only knew what this means to me.” By refusing to further inquire about Antonio’s desperate situation, the police officer in Part 5 further reinforces how irresponsible law enforcement continually neglects, rather than improves, the livelihoods of the poor.
Another recurring theme of Bicycle Thieves is the powerlessness of the average downtrodden person against an unconcerned collective around them. Antonio’s individuality vanishes when confronting crowds of people, the police, the Communist group, the market vendors, and other powerful groups. Part 5 especially centers on how Antonio struggles to maintain his self-worth against a crowd of fellow working-class men. The neighborhood crowd thwarts Antonio’s attempt to capture the thief; they shout insults at Antonio and nearly attack him for supposedly provoking the thief’s seizure. Such behavior prompts Antonio to yell, “Cowards, ganging up on one man!” Antonio is absolutely valid in this declaration—these men, who would likely confront the thief with equal vigor if they were in Antonio’s situation, are obtusely uniting against one individual simply so that they can feel more powerful and dominant themselves. It’s a cowardly act, but if Bicycle Thieves has taught us anything, its that such acts are frequent and unavoidable.
For the vast majority of the film, we view the thief with hostility, just as Antonio does. If Antonio doesn't get his bike back, he will lose his desperately-needed new job and the family will be again in desperate poverty. We, therefore, view the bicycle thief as the unequivocal, vicious antagonist who prevents Antonio from making a decent living—that is, until Part 5. Here, we see how the young thief endures the same, if not worse, miserable and impoverished livelihood as Antonio. The four members of his family share a single claustrophobic bedroom, with little room for legitimate comfort or privacy. The impoverished status of the thief further affirms André Bazin’s claim that “in the world in which this workman [Antonio] lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive.” In Bicycle Thieves, victims are not wealthier than the thieves, nor are the thieves better off than the victims. The actions of the young thief aren’t justified any more than Antonio’s terrible act at the film's climax, but they are understandable in an impoverished state where desperation dehumanizes poor individuals into petty criminals.
Because of these rigid social circumstances, we understand why Antonio attempts to steal the bicycle. This act nearly completes Antonio’s character arc; at the beginning of the film, he is characterized as a family man with relatively high moral standards. By Part 5, he has abandoned these values: he threatens to kill people, neglects Bruno, and steals the bike. After walking away from the thief, being thoroughly humiliated by the crowd, and seeing hundreds of taunting bike riders zoom past him, Antonio is more dejected and beaten-down than ever, as well as more willing to give up on his moral values. By stealing the bicycle, he decides to give an eye for an eye—a corrupt but ultimately understandable action, as—if successful—it could allow his family will survive. We cannot condemn Antonio, a vulnerable man with genuine flaws, when he comprises his morality and commits a crime in an effort to survive in cruel postwar Italian society. Thus, Antonio’s attempted theft nearly says as much about his destitute economic and social environment as it does his character.
Notably, Antonio does not succeed in the theft of the bicycle, and is caught by a crowd of men and the bike’s owner. The men treat Antonio cruelly and prepare to muscle him to the station. However, as a rare act of compassion in the film, the owner decides not to take Antonio to the police after noticing a distraught Bruno. Between Bruno and his father, Bruno was consistently more pragmatic and self-sufficient. It is ironically Bruno’s expression of innocence, fear, and devastation that saves his father. In this sequence, Bruno fulfills both a childlike and adultlike role: he becomes childlike because of his visceral, naive reaction to his father’s crime, but he also appears adultlike for effectively protecting his father from going to jail.
Crucially, Bruno provides the last bastion of hope, both for Antonio and the defeated world of Bicycle Thieves. Bruno has fiercely admired his father up until to the final scene, where he watches his father abandon his morals. Before stealing the bicycle, Antonio tries to send his son home, but Bruno misses the streetcar and thereby becomes the intimate witness of his father’s wrongdoings, shortcomings, and insufficiency as a provider. Bruno is incredulous and stunned, but he stands by his father. He hands Antonio back his cap—a symbol of pride that was knocked off by the owner of the bike—in an earnest gesture of respect. After freeing himself from the crowd, Antonio holds his head in shame and begins to cry out of humiliation and hopelessness. Bruno grasps his father’s hand, reassuring Antonio that he still loves him, regardless of his shame and flaws. Through his son’s love, Antonio receives redemption for his sins, and remains a flawed, albeit remarkably human, protagonist. In the final shot of the film, the camera fades as the father and son walk dolefully toward an unknown, but likely miserable, future, submerging their individuality into an anonymous crowd experiencing the same hardships. They have lost everything, but they still have each other and their humanity.
Because the film concludes with a sense of dread and defeat, it feels as though Antonio’s arduous journey was worthless: he is back where he started, without a bicycle and job. As Bazin astutely noted, the plot of the film “might just as well not have happened.” This remark may appear scornful, but it is the ultimate compliment for a film that follows its protagonist on an odyssey to...well, nowhere. De Sica tells such a universally human story of great drama, despite the actual plot centering on the most mundane and ordinary of objects. Through thoughtful characterizations and astute social commentary, De Sica renders the human experience of poverty and suffering. The film avoids shaping the struggles faced by people like Antonio into escapist fare; rather, it truthfully shows how people endure hardships, provoking an everlasting resonance with audiences along the way.