Classic Movie Review: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

March 27, 2010 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

I’ll be the first to admit that I am usually a little prejudiced towards old “classic” films, especially the black and white ones.  Techniques, writing, acting and filming styles, not to mention technological improvements, have all advanced so much that it’s easy to conclude (without actually having watched many) that old films don’t compare to their modern counterparts.

While much of that is probably true, there are a few “true” classics out there that seem to defy the passage of time.  I recently watched, as part of my writing theory class, Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (also known as “The Bicycle Thief” or “The Bicycle Thieves”).

The point of watching the film was to learn about neo-realism, a style movement which attempted to give a new level of realism to cinema.  This meant shoots on location (as opposed to studios), non-actors in lead roles, and tackling issues of everyday life, such as economic and social difficulties.

The Bicycle Thief tells the simple story of an unemployed man in poverty-stricken, post-WWII Italy who is fortunate enough to be given a job putting up posters around Rome.  The job is contingent upon him having a bicycle, and of course, as the title of the film suggests, it is stolen from him.  Desperate to save his job and his family, the remainder of the film follows the man and his son as they trek through the streets of Rome to find the bicycle.

In my opinion, The Bicycle Thief is a “true classic” that can still resonate with viewers even more than 60 years after it was made.  I couldn’t believe it myself that they were capable of making such technically sound and emotionally power films back in those days, especially in Italy, where they didn’t have anything close to the big budgets of Hollywood.

Yes, there are some moments that are quite scripted, but somehow they still work.  Perhaps it’s the natural performances by the non-professional leads, Lamberto Maggiorani (a factory worker) as the man, and Enzo Staiola (literally a kid off the streets) as his son.  These actors bring an authenticity to the film that cannot be overstated.  It’s crazy to think that they almost had Cary Grant playing the man.

The touching relationship between father and son, the father’s increasing desperation and despair, and the son’s gradual loss of innocence, all carry timeless and universal messages.  There are a few scenes and images in particular that pack as much of an emotional punch as any Hollywood film I’ve seen, and yet the story itself and the relationships between the characters are remarkably simple.

Some films stand the test of time for a reason.  And thanks to The Bicycle Thief, I might just start watching more “classics” from now on.

5 out of 5 stars!