The plot is simplicity itself. A man needs a bicycle in order to secure a job which will save his family from encroaching poverty. He makes a sacrifice in order to buy one, only to have the much-cherished item stolen during his first day at work. With his son in tow, he searches the city hoping to find either the bicycle or the thief. There are brief glimpses of hope, but the search becomes increasingly futile and the story ends, after an ironic climax, on an unresolved and bitter note.
This is director Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), the benchmark of the Italian neorealist movement, recently restored for its 50th anniversary. It’s a film drenched in poetic wretchedness, nearly documentary in its depiction of a swarming and seedy postwar Rome, but with the appealing contours of a darkly seductive fable. So expertly do De Sica and his co-screenwriter Cesare Zavattini leaven the essential grimness of their story with a subtle sentimentality that Thief remains, for all its nihilistic implications, a film that people remember fondly.
One thing that’s clear a half-century after the fact is that neorealism is not to be confused with unmediated realism, that its core films – De Sica’s Thief, Shoeshine (1946) and Umberto D. (1952), Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946) – were as manipulative in their way as any contemporary Hollywood product. What was "neo" about these movies was their settings, which seem to spring from an almost polemical urge to reveal the devastation wrought by the recent war – an urge that was then being expressed in America through the subterfuge of film noir.
But what one remembers most about The Bicycle Thief isn’t the crumbling landscape or the lean and hungry look of the nameless extras, but rather the cherubic, troubled face of the main character’s young son. There’s no good reason for him to be tagging along throughout the film, except to allow us to view his father’s increasing frustration and humiliation through his eyes. We watch the son as he watches the father and what could be merely squalid becomes profoundly sad.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.