I picked up the DVD of Ladri di biciclette (‘Bicycle Thieves’) after seeing the movie poster used in my sister’s blog. Her blog entry was a light one on how her bicycle was stolen when she was a student in the U.S. For some strange reason, this association had always made me assume the movie was a light one and I set down prepared to watch a bunch of Italian men playing an ancient version of ‘Gone in 60 seconds’. All I can say is that I could not have been more mistaken.
The movie tells the story of Antonia Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a poor unemployed worker in post WW2 Rome who manages to land a job. His lower middle class family comprising his wife, son and new born baby, is barely keeping body and soul together and the job promises to better their economic conditions substantially. The job however requires a cycle. His has been pawned long ago for a few meals. Mrs Ricci decides to pawn the good linen from her wedding trousseau to retrieve the cycle. Given the title of the movie, you pretty much know that the cycle will get stolen shortly and you wait with a rapidly beating heart on when and how it will happen. Sure enough, as the hero of the movie is cheerfully whistling and going about his work, a thief scoots with the bicycle. The rest of the movie is about Ricci and his young son Bruno (Enzo Stailo) searching for the bicycle. Initially they take the help of an actor friend who sends his men to the stolen goods market. Not meeting with much success he searches in another market, manages to locate the thief, loses him and finally confronts him. As the day progresses Antonio moves from hope to despair to renewed vigour and finally utter desolation when he loses more than his bicycle.
The storyline is fairly simple. It is set in harsh economic times but focuses largely on every man’s primeval fear – not being able to feed his family. The strength of the movie is the construction of Antonio’s character as your average man. He is not one of the impossible grim Hollywood heroes who goes through great silent strife to feed his smiling and blissfully ignorant picture-perfect family. When he is down and out it is his wife he turns to. When he does not want to scare her and wants some practical advice he takes the help of his friend. His son is automatically roped in for the bicycle search given that someday he will be a man.
The other beautiful part of the movie is the portrayal of the father-son relationship. The duo genuinely enjoys each other’s company. Antonio is by no means harsh on his boy but is often strict and at times angry. Bruno is precocious enough to discern that the loss of the a bicycle is a major blow for the family but is child enough to be delighted at his father’s suggestion of treating themselves to unaffordable pizza.
In the end the movie works mainly because it shows the struggle for dignity with such breathtaking simplicity. Worth a watch.
*The DVD cover said 'The bicycle thief' but Wikipedia tells me the movie's title translates to bicycle thieves. Given the story, I would tend to go with Wiki.