Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist masterpiece has lost none of its impact.
Watching it now it seems a shame to tag it under the somewhat restrictive neorealist banner. Because although the struggles of post-war Italy—the crushing poverty, the broken streets—form an inescapable backdrop, it’s the film’s deft handling of humanist, universal themes that strike hardest. And it’s these that elevate it to the status of a masterpiece.
On the surface it’s a simple film: Antonio needs a bicycle for work to support his wife and children. When it’s stolen, he desperately searches the streets of Milan looking for it with his son Bruno.
It’s remarkable how much de Sica packs into this sparse framework. Is Antonio neglecting Bruno in his fanatical search for the missing bike? He certainly leaves him trailing behind like a loyal puppy most of the time.
And what about the name of the bike, Fides—faith—that’s interesting, isn’t it? Why does Antonio almost rough up an old man in a packed church? Why does he visit a clairvoyant after earlier rubbishing his wife’s reliance on her? And there’s the last line of the film, spoken after Antonio has been caught stealing another bike in a final act of desperation: “And you can thank God.”
Thank God for what? For the moral choice he’s been given (and failed)? For the change in his son’s perception of him (brilliantly illustrated by a sweeping, circular shot as Bruno watches his father cross the line)? Or maybe for the surface answer: the reprieve he’s granted by the bike’s owner.
Regardless, the performances are universally superb, with Lamberto Maggiorani perfectly embodying the worthy, earnest Antonio. Enzo Staiola as young Bruno steals the show, though, providing both a comedic foil and moral heart to the film. His expressions of frustration are also naturalistic and hilarious.
This wonderfully heartbreaking film should be seen by everyone.