Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Bicycle Thief, 1948: A Film for These Troubled Times

Given that my husband is a major movie buff and has shown me so many wonderful classic films, it surprised me he's never seen Vittorio De Sica's neorealist masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief.  I'd never seen it either. So Saturday night, we sat down with a good friend in our family room to watch this masterpiece on cable TV. Even if you have seen this film before, rent it. Given the perilous state of the American economy, the film speaks to our hearts now as never before.

The movie's setting is post World War II Rome, when Italy was poor and politically unstable. The plot concerns a young father, Antonio, who is struggling against every odd to support his small family. Bruno, his 7-year-old son, accompanies him throughout most of the story and so we see the father's pain through the child's eyes. The theme: the price we pay for what matters most.
The story begins as Antonio lands a day job putting up movie posters throughout Rome. He is required to have a bicycle for this government job and his wife sells their bedsheets to pay for it. The first day of his job, we watch as Bruno himself heads to a job at a gas station while Antonio begins his own work day. A young man steals Antonio's bicycle, and with it, the couple's dream of a living wage and a future for their children.

The rest of the movie depicts Antonio's search for his bicycle through the streets of Rome. We experience his fear that not only will he lose his livelihood, but his family, too.  We watch his vulnerability as he faces a city indifferent to his plight: church missionaries, police officials and every other person he encounters seem to care not a whit about this hard-working man and his struggle to survive. At the movie's end, we feel his deep moral anguish as he considers whether he might become a bicycle thief so he may feed his family.

I found it ironic my husband and I watched this movie with a dear friend who happens to be the 40-year-old single mom of two children. R. is owner of a small business that has foundered. Her extended family, with whom she lives, has enabled her to keep a roof over her head and food on the table.

We three adults last night were struck by the parallels between the city of Rome depicted so beautifully by De Sica and our own reality. So many friends and loved ones here in the United States are enduring bouts of unemployment or underemployment. So many are one paycheck - and one layoff - away from financial disaster. So many people we know have lost money in the stock market and struggle to buy or keep their homes.

Fewer than 30 miles away, protesters are marching and camping out in New York City against the corporate takeover of our government. American taxpayers bailed out the nation's banking industry three years ago. The banks are flourishing, yet laying off thousands and offering severance packages in the millions to ousted executives while the housing market collapses My girlfriend said her adult daughter, born out of wedlock and now a student in Manhattan, would like to join the Wall Street protesters, but is too busy working. So she waves from the window of the clothing store where she works. (Rome itself is now home to tens of thousands of protesters, some of whom regrettably have chosen a violent path)

The Christian life requires us to change ourselves first before we consider changing the world. And yet, I do not believe Christ calls us into an either/or position. I believe we can work toward a more just society, working as the hands and feet of our Savior. But we must always be aware that true human liberation comes from the fact of Christ's resurrection and his presence with us right now.

This is why I support and pray for protesters. This is why I love The Bicycle Thief. This is why our friend and her son went home when the movie was over. We all needed to get a good night's sleep. Church comes Sunday morning. This morning, we heard about giving to Caesar what is his, and the best and rest of ourselves to God.


  1. I've never seen this film, but it sounds remarkable...

  2. Hi Allison, it's striking to me that you compare what De Sica depicted in his movie with the protesters... these two different realities might sound alike to you guys in the US but not here where yesterday the "Black Block" almost destroyed Rome. This is the only way the Italians are able to protest: by destroying and devastatins. That's so sad.

    Anyway, what you say is mostly true. I remember watching this movie (which is a milestone in Italian recent culture) when I was a little kid and I said to myself "this is not gonna happen again....". But as you can see, I was wrong :-)

    Last but not least: how to live nowadays life from a Christian point of view... I think that the best we can do (might sound too trivial) is to do God's will moment by moment: so, when I'm in office I should work at my best, when I play soccer I should play at my best, when I do anything else I should do it at my best. Moment by moment making God's will. This is the only way we have to make this a better world.


  3. @Dwija: It is a remarkable film. Your local public library might be able to track down a copy for you. It is absolutely okay for your daughters too - it has been listed as one of the films all children must see before they turn 14.

    @Leonardo: I guess I did not mean the protests in Rome were like Rome in the movie. What I was thinking was that the struggles here in the US now are not so far for many families to what this character faced in the movie. Thank you for reading and for your perspective. How sad and tragic what is happening in Rome right now.

  4. I haven't seen the film, but I will now. Thank you.

  5. We saw the film a couple of years ago and I agree, it is wonderful. It tells the moral tale in such a beautiful way. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  6. Have you seen the more recent Italian film "Cinema Paradiso?" I think of it whenever I think of "The Bicycle Thief". CP is a beautiful film which shows the changing culture in a small Italian village from the days just after WWII (thus, why I connect it with Bicycle Thief) until the 1990s or so.

  7. Oh, I LOVE Cinema Paradiso. My parents introduced me to that movie in the late 1980s. What a keeper.