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Foreign Film Feature: ‘Bicycle Thieves’

Patrick McManus | Tuesday, September 20, 2011


The Debartolo Performing Arts Center showed “Bicycle Thieves,” one of the most influential foreign films of all time, Friday. The 1948 Italian neorealist film was based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini, with a screenplay by Cesare Zavattini and directed by Vittorio De Sica. Zavattini and De Sica are widely considered some of the greatest names in European cinema.

Set in the depression of Rome following the Second World War, the story of “Bicycle Thieves” concerns a young man, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), who finally gets the job he needs to support his family. But, there is a catch — he needs a bicycle. Ricci’s wife pawns their sheets to get the money to buy back the man’s bicycle, and he eventually starts his job putting up posters around the city. 

However, tragedy strikes on his first day. His bicycle is stolen. Bicycle theft is a calamity that unfortunately many Notre Dame students can identify with, but for Antonio, his bicycle is far more than a mere convenient conveyance. It is essential to his livelihood. 

What ensues is something of an inner-city odyssey in an attempt to recover the pilfered bicycle. Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) scour the city with mixed success. 

The essence of Italian neorealism is the life of ordinary, working class people, treated without the gloss of Hollywood romanticism. De Sica achieves that flavor in his film by casting both actors and laypeople as characters and including the facades of war-devastated buildings in the set.

“Bicycle Thieves” is not escapist entertainment, nor does it offer any moral solace. It is a bleak film — which is where its power lies. It is a real story about real people. Yet, that hasn’t stopped generations of critics from maligning the movie as overly contrived, too Marxist or not pointed enough in its social criticism. 

“Bicycle Thieves” is frequently cited as one of the greatest movies of all time. It won an Honorary Academy Award in 1950 for “Most Outstanding Foreign Film” years before that category even existed. That should say something about how highly the film was regarded in its day. Its consistent placing on lists of the great movies clearly shows that that regard has hardly diminished in the more than half-century that has passed since its initial release.

If you are turned off by subtitles, black and white film, foreign sensibilities and depressing movies, then “Bicycle Thieves” is probably not the movie for you. But if “Bicycle Thieves” sounds just like the intelligent foreign flick you’ve been waiting for and you missed it this weekend, don’t worry. You can stream it instantly on Netflix. 

Contact Patrick McManus at [email protected].