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The Bicycle Thief (1948)

by | Sep 30, 2019

In the aftermath of World War II, a young Italian family man attempts to recover a stolen bicycle that represents his only hope to escape from long-term unemployment.

Medium: Film

Writer(s): Cesare Zavattini, Suso D'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, Gerardo Guerrieri

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Production Co.(s): Produzioni De Sica

Adapted from: Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) (Novel) by Luigi Bartolini (© 1946)

The Story on the Screen

In The Bicycle Thief (Italian title: Ladri di Biciclette), the main character, Antonio Ricci, is a desperate young family man who has been out of work for over a year in the economically depressed era of post-World War II Italy. When we-the-audience first meet him, he is so despondent regarding his prospects that he has chosen to stop participating in the daily ritual of men gathering at an employment depot to hear whether or not they have been assigned work. Consequently, he is not present when his name is called by the official who is assigned to hand out job opportunities, and he must be fetched by a friend to answer the call and be given the opportunity to take the job.

At first glance, the job opportunity appears to be an unqualified godsend for Antonio—the chance to earn a living and support his family by hanging advertising posters at various locales in the city of Rome. But there is a catch: To qualify for the job, he must have ready access to a bicycle so that he can ride to where the posters are to be hung. And although he does own a bicycle, it is currently in the possession of a pawn shop, where he has used it as an asset to get money to provide for his family.

To escape the grip of unemployment and provide for his family, he must recover his bicycle from a pawn shop.

When it is made clear to him that the bicycle is a requirement for the job, he sets out to recover his own from the pawn shop—an operation made possible by the unselfish offer of his wife, Maria, to pawn the bed sheets that she received as part of her dowry. And the pawn shop itself serves as a harrowing reminder of the impoverished state that he hopes to escape by means of the job—with its floor-to-ceiling racks stuffed with the goods that others have pawned.

With the bicycle recovered from the pawn shop, Antonio finds himself on the threshold of a life that he has longed for, to be able to provide for his family and regain the feeling of self-respect that we-the-audience sense he probably had at one time before he was overcome by the despair of long-term unemployment. And on the morning of his first day of work, his infectious hope pervades his household—from Maria, with whom he feels free to flirt, to Bruno, his young son, who helps clean the bicycle to get it ready for the day.

After dropping off Bruno at a bus stop, where he is to wait patiently while Antonio performs his new duties, Antonio joins his fellow poster hangers as they spread out across the streets of Rome on their bicycles. And after a quick lesson from one of his fellow workers regarding how to hang posters, he is sent out on his own to continue the job.

On his first assignment, he becomes the victim of a bicycle thief.

Unfortunately, while standing on a ladder on his first assignment, he becomes the victim of a bold young thief who steals the bicycle that we-the-audience know is the key to his happiness, hope, self-respect, and ability to provide for his family. And it this crime that serves as the inciting incident in the story and sparks his journey— the attempt to recover (regain) the precious bicycle (and all that it represents).

Antonio's efforts to recover the bicycle range from the official (reporting the bicycle to the police as having been stolen) to the personal (enlisting friends to help him search for the bicycle among the piazzas of Rome) to the clandestine (hunting down an old man whom he saw conversing in a piazza with the thief) to the confrontational (chasing down and publicly waylaying the thief in front neighbors who are on the thief's side and stand ready to come to his aid). But at every turn, his mission is complicated or thwarted.

Every effort he makes to recover the stolen bicycle is thwarted.

The policeman to whom he reports the bicycle as stolen provides no assistance and advises him to conduct the search on his own. The friends who assist him in his search of the marketplaces around Rome are unable to find the bicycle, which he realizes might have already been dismantled and sold. The old man offers no voluntary assistance and must be coerced into revealing an address where the thief might be found. And the thief's neighbors express unflinching support for the thief, proclaiming his innocence and chastising Antonio for his accusations.

In the course of his pursuit, he comes to understand the depth of the love he shares with his son.

In the course of a single day, Antonio pursues and exhausts every possibility available to him for recovering the bicycle. And as a result of the pursuit, he comes to understand the depth of commitment and love he shares with Bruno.

But the mission drives him to the brink of a desperation so intense that, near the end, he is compelled to attempt to steal a bicycle himself, simply to regain the hope of keeping the job. The attempt fails miserably and leaves him as a tattered soul, having disgraced himself in the eyes of his son and the community, and having committed an act that would otherwise be uncharacteristic for a man of his nature. And if were not for the mercy of the man whose bicycle he attempts to steal, who looks upon him with pity and decides not to press charges, he would find himself in jail.

Behind the Scenery

In The Bicycle Thief, the bicycle represents much more than a physical object; it is, instead, a critical tool and talisman of good fortune and prosperity. And its recovery stands at the very crux of Antonio's journey. Consequently, in terms of Discovering the Soul of Your Story, the issue of The Bicycle Thief may be said to lie in the realm of "regaining possession of a critical means to earn happiness." And the manner in which Antonio pursues his attempt—aided every step of the way by his stalwart companion, Bruno—may be well described as dogged and insistent.

Furthermore, the storytellers appear to support Antonio's efforts and the manner in which he carries them out; therefore, the proposition for the story may be stated as:

  • One should attempt to regain possession of a critical means to earn happiness when it is lost unjustly, because success in the attempt will restore to him the possibility of enjoying a satisfying life.

As evening approaches, Antonio and Bruno walk home hand-in-hand, having failed to regain the bicycle and the hope that it represents, melting into the Roman throngs as they do so. And because we-the-audience support Antonio's efforts to recover the bicycle, we are left disappointed. Consequently, The Bicycle Thief stands as a fail/disappointed story—which ranks it among other powerful stories such as Chinatown and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The Bicycle Thief qualifies as a fail/disappointed story.

And because Antonio is left hopeless, with little in the way of consolation, the mood of the story must be classified as unhappy.

Elements to Admire

Thematic Unity

The Bicycle Thief stands as a shining example of the thematic unity that results from the consistent alignment of the actions and type of intent of the main character—in this case, that of regaining.

The story is aided greatly by its consistent thematic unity.

The life to which Antonio aspires—that of being able to "get by" reasonably—appears to be one with which he and his fellow Romans are familiar, judging by the great quantity of goods that we-the-audience witness stored at the pawn shop. The society of which he is part is not one that has never known comfort; it is one the economic comfort of which has been ravaged by war and depression. And in this sense, Antonio reflects the mood and position of his world simply by wanting to return to a life that he could feel good about living, including with respect to his ability to provide for his family.

As noted above, Antonio's story is driven by a regain intent—specifically that of recovering possession of the bicycle that will allow him to fulfill his modest dreams. But others of his more important actions also represent regain intents, such as when tries to recover the trail of the old man who slips away from him and Bruno in the church and when he races back to a bridge where he has left Bruno temporarily, after a brief spat broke out between them, thinking that Bruno might have drowned and anxious to return to him and to reestablish the closeness of their relationship prior to the spat.

Efficient Storytelling

The film also demonstrates a very clear and efficient use of actions to establish the motivations of its characters, as well as important story points. The fact that Antonio is not among the throng of men scrambling for work at the start of the film—and, instead, sits nearby, depressed and drawing idly in the sand—communicates his state of mind with quick and easy cinematic brushstrokes. And by the time that the bicycle is stolen, we-the-audience know what it means to him and his hopes, so that the task before him is clear... to recover the bicycle.

The film demonstrates the efficient use of actions to establish the motivations of its characters.

Effective Use of the Outcome/Reaction Ending

It is also interesting to note that the storytellers support their proposition with a fail/disappointed outcome/reaction. They could just as easily have supported it by making sure that Antonio succeeded in recovering the bicycle, preserving his hopes of living reasonably well and providing him with a lesson about security in the process—which would have resulted in a succeed/pleased (and happy) ending (see Chapter 9 of Discovering the Soul of Your Story).

By using a fail/disappointed ending, the storytellers pin the story firmly in the mind of the audience.

But by employing a fail/disappointed approach, the storytellers ensure that the outcome is unsatisfying to anyone who wants to see the main character to succeed. And the dissatisfaction itself pins the story a little more firmly in the mind of us-the-audience and makes us more likely to keep thinking about it after the credits have rolled, imagining what we would have liked to see happen but did not.

For More Information

For details regarding the concepts and terms mentioned in this article, please refer to the resource materials.

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