The Bicycle Thieves follows the story of a man – Antonio – living in post-WWII Rome who is fortunate enough to find employment. The job requires that he use a bicycle, which is promptly stolen from him. The remainder of the film charts the protagonist’s endeavours to recover his bicycle; his son, Bruno, obediently assists him in these futile efforts. Vittorio De Sica’s film is a simple story of poverty but also a powerful piece of neorealistic cinema with boundless textual integrity.
The film juxtaposes the poverty-stricken masses with the disproportionately affluent in a plain yet enduring way. Antonio is ecstatic and eager once he finds a job. He pastes cinema posters around the city, traversing Rome on his bicycle to illegally plaster images of wealthy Hollywood actors around the city – an ironic addition to Antonio’s situation. As the responder is aware that the bicycle is to be stolen sooner or later, De Sica plays with their expectations and the item is stolen not when it is made to seem most likely but rather when the responder least expects it.
The efforts Antonio and Bruno make to retrieve the bicycle are of no consequence and Antonio, unemployed and despairing, suggests that he and his son eat a pizza. The restaurant does not serve pizza, but their meal is nevertheless indulgent by their standards. Bruno glances at the pasta-clad table of the family beside him, after which Antonio says wistfully “To eat like that, you need a million lira a month at least.” This image, more than any other, conveys the gravity of their poverty.
When Antonio finally confronts the bicycle thief, his angry acquaintances threaten to steal his wallet. In a reference to the thief and his friends, Antonio cries “You’re all thieves, the lot of you!” Their collective poverty has driven them to crime as well, and Antonio still sees himself as too honest for such dealings. This collapses not long afterwards when, with neither his bicycle nor the evidence to press charges against the thief, Antonio attempts to steal a bicycle himself, thereby providing further insight into the film’s title. He is unsuccessful, and it is but for the kindness of the victim that he is not imprisoned. In this way the film concludes on a note of futility and hopelessness, underlining the futility and hopelessness of the poverty Antonio experienced.
Since its release, The Bicycle Thieves has found a home in lists ranking the greatest films of all time. Its enduring legacy is a result of its plainly universal thematic concerns.