Bicycle Thieves ★★★★★

Separated by four years, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. complement each other and together form a profound commentary on the despair characterizing the reality of life in poverty-stricken post-WWII Italy. Though I am sure more of De Sica’s work benefits from thematic symmetry, all of which I have yet to see, I am willing to wager an opinion that these two particular titles having so much in common may not have been entirely an incidental by-product of De Sica’s neorealist proclivities.

Similarly to Umberto D., Bicycle Thieves brings us up close to the struggle of disenfranchised men and women left to fend for themselves in a country busy lifting itself from the rubble left by the war. De Sica does it again by focusing on one man, Antonio Ricci, and his struggle to provide for his wife Maria, son Bruno and a newborn baby. It is crystal clear that Antonio is a proud man who lives by a code based on honesty, just as Umberto D., and the unfolding story is a similar study on what it takes to break a man’s spirit and make him bin his moral compass. One could perhaps see it as a neorealist take on the biblical story of Job, a man tested by God whose stalwart resolve and unwavering faith were eventually rewarded; though, it wouldn’t be entirely appropriate and Umberto D. would be a better fit for such a comparison. After all, Umberto eventually steps back from the cliff edge of despair and chooses not to take his own life thus reaffirming us that life is worth living regardless of how bad things get.

Bicycle Thieves willingly denies its characters any form of reprieve and opts for a more damning commentary. In the end, Antonio’s quest to retrieve a stolen bicycle, which he desperately need to keep his job, ends in utter failure. He learns time and again that his pure ideas of justice and good will are posed to leave him helpless in a world void of rules and any appreciation of human decency. His moral spine eventually snaps under the burden of injustice inflicted upon him and in one fell swoop he is left with nothing. De Sica allows the world to strip Antonio of his dignity and leaves us with an image of him struggling to hold back his tears at the realization his desperation led him to commit a crime and that his son, who witnessed everything, would never look up to him.

There is no debate that De Sica conjured a powerful image that leaves no doubt as to what the filmmaker wanted to convey. Bicycle Thieves does not aspire to convince anyone that there is any upside to extreme hardship of living in poverty. He is not kidding anyone that God would eventually put a stop to this and reward Antonio for staying firm and faithful. Life just doesn’t work this way. Sometimes, despite one's best intentions and greatest efforts, the odds are truly insurmountable. Sometimes people just lose. It is infuriating to witness and profoundly sad, but some stories just don’t have a happy ending. But they can be nonetheless illuminating, intellectually challenging and immeasurably valuable to shaping our understanding of the world; which is why Bicycle Thieves is rightly referred to as a film everyone should see.

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