Bicycle Thieves (1948) – Response Paper 1

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*I am beginning a new graduate course today at Ball State – ENG 654 – Film Studies. We were tasked to view the film Bicycle Thieves and write a brief 500-700 word response prior to our first class session tonight.

The film is available for rent or purchase through streaming services, but there is also a site/app called Kanopy where it can be viewed for free by subscribers. My response begins under the photo below.

L: Enzo Staiola (“Bruno”); R: Lamberto Maggiorani (“Antonio”) in Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica.

The 1948 Italian film Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) from director Vittorio de Sica features the quest of Antonio Ricci, a newly employed layman, who searches for his stolen bicycle. Antonio’s dependence on the bicycle is not only established quickly, but the bicycle also proves to represent various tangible and intangible elements of humanity. The bulk of the narrative exhibits Antonio modeling strong, respectable citizenship while in the company of his young son Bruno, yet Antonio reaches a moral threshold that clearly demonstrates a central struggle through an example of the circumstances that would lead anyone to contradict one’s own ethical code. 

The choice of the bicycle for this purpose is apt due to its multifaceted symbolic power. The universality and familiarity with bicycles contributes to the power of the film’s general thesis which exhibits the challenges one man faces with his own moral code while under extreme duress. Bicycles are often associated with youth as the first mode of transportation that truly separates the owner/rider from his or her home and outside the realm of visible adult supervision, which conjures the notion of one gaining independence. The independence Antonio desires is not one of isolation from others but rather one that would remove him out from under the weight and struggle of poverty. As Antonio’s story develops, the bicycle further serves as a symbolic generational bond between Antonio and his son, and the clarity of the father-son relationship blurs at the same pace as the whereabouts of the stolen bicycle. 

The opening sequence of the film cleverly establishes the immediate, yet undefined, significance that owning a bicycle has for Antonio, and this leads to the first of many conflicts the protagonist faces. Viewers are immediately immersed in the struggle all of the unemployed workers experience, and their frustration with the lack of opportunity quickly becomes a microcosm for the oppressed individuals. Because Antonio has pawned his bicycle, his wife Maria decides that selling their bedsheets, objects she clearly treasures, is worth the sacrifice so Antonio can not only reach the desired position but eventually earn enough to take them out of their dire financial state. Thus, the specific bicycle he re-claims serves as a physical representation of his past debt and current cash crisis. 

What is so striking about this scene is how quickly Maria’s sharp and selfless idea to pawn the sheets comes to her when compared to the visibly painful and helplessness Antonio displayed after accepting the job bid. In this scene, De Sica could be promoting the maternal instinct to think of the entire family’s needs before her own, but this altruistic action is never later discussed among the couple. However, upon buying back his bicycle, viewers watch through Antonio’s vantagepoint as the sheets they’d just sold are stored into an immense and seemingly endless collection. It is clear De Sica felt an obligation to contrast these two through tangible goods for this scene to garner as much as time as it does. 

Once the bicycle is stolen, the narrative’s tone returns to the struggle the unemployment line conjured in the opening scene. Antonio helplessly chases after the thief, earns little or no respect from law enforcement, and becomes visibly fraught with the notion of returning home to his wife and newborn to explain the loss. Interestingly, De Sica opts to allow the viewer to watch the seedy heist the three-man team of thieves initiate come to fruition, which makes the audience experience the struggle and helplessness right alongside Antonio. Because the lone thief who rode off initially was shown briefly and only in profile, the audience cannot be any more sure than Antonio himself when he believes he’s found him the following afternoon. De Sica thus forces Antonio and the viewer to consider one’s willingness to reach closure, even if it means putting others into a poorer condition. 

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