I put on Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves) expecting poverty porn of the best kind. I expected to end up crying like a little baby. What I got was something else entirely. While it is true that the movie is set during the Great Depression and is about the search for a bicycle of a man (Lamberto Maggiorani) whose entire livelihood depends on it, it’s not the poverty that director Vittorio de Sica is interested in, it’s how the poverty lives with the man, and how the man lives with poverty.
Very soon after he loses the bicycle, he goes to pick up his son (Enzo Staiola), and they walk into the empty street, two silhouettes in a bright sky. Unbeknown to us, this shot is exactly what the movie will show itself to be about.
For me, the most surprising thing about the movie was that it was as interested in the boy as the man. But what it was most interested in was the relation between them. We see a strange disconnect between them, a disconnect born of the fact that the father treats his son like a man; always, the son is expected to keep up, when he falls the father doesn’t even look back, when the father decides to drink away his sadness and “be happy for now”, the son gets wine too, wine that he doesn’t actually want to drink. It’s not that the father doesn’t care for his son, it’s that the son is grown beyond his years. The first time we see him, he is cleaning up his father’s bicycle, and complaining about the way the pawn-broker teated it. We see them leaving, at six-thirty in the morning, dressed in exactly the same way. The father drops him at a place, and drives off to his own newfound job, after two anguished “Bye, papa”s. Then, when we are expecting him to walk into a building for school or something of the sort, he goes into a shed and starts working at his own job at a petrol pump.
In that scene, what we notice is the two anguished “Bye, papa”s, but what the father notices is the money he’s going to make in his new life; dropping the boy off for his job is routine. Throughout the search – on which the son accompanies the father -, he’s huddling up to his father, like any normal kid. The father never even extends his hand to put it around the child’s shoulders. Once, the father hits him. There’s an obvious anguish on his face, but he’s unable to bring himself to apologise to his son. Right after that, he leaves him near a bridge and starts walking around, when the area erupts in the alarm of a boy drowning. Finally, he sees that the drowning boy is not his son. He goes up to his son, and all he tells the latter is to put on his jacket, with a little more insistence than usual.
Finally… wait, don’t let me make you think that there’s only two major characters in this movie; there’s three. The third one is the crowd. Every scene has the father, the son, and the crowd, and the movie is a sequence o set-pieces of how these three interact. Looking at the crowd, not to mention the father, one suspects that the reason for the success of ‘Italian neo-realism’ is none other than the Italians. These Italians, they don’t get sad, they get angry. Every movement of theirs is that little bit exaggerated when compared with ours; this lends a certain energy to even the most dreary stories, which means sadness works better than in other languages.
The characters form a triumvirate. The crowd provides opposition, right from the first scene where Ricci (the father) gets his job to the scene where he finally finds – or thinks he’s found – the thief. The father provides the force of action. The son provides the emotional connection through all of this.
Finally, in the end, the father breaks down, breaks down and reaches for the son’s hand. Then, they walk off, two silhouettes in a crowd of silhouettes, a bright sky in the background. They’ve all found peace with each other.