Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Written by Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, and Gerardo Guerriri
Based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini
If you like dark and depressing movies set in postwar Italy (because they were filmed in postwar Italy), then the Italian neorealism movement is for you. The Bicycle Thief went on to win an honorary Oscar for good reason, showing off how the movement could be both thought-provoking while creating downright hopeless stories.
Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) gets a job putting up posters around Rome, but he needs a bicycle to do it or he'll get fired. When his bicycle gets stolen, he and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are forced to look all over Rome for it.
The plot seems almost simplistic, but it's the interactions of the characters that develop the richness here. Antonio is a desperate man, and he so badly wants to do right for his family with this job. He has these small sparks of hope that get destroyed as he gets beaten down by a world he simply cannot win in. And while child actors are always hit-or-miss, Staiola is perfect as Bruno. His expressions tend towards being flat, but the directing makes sure we know exactly what's going through his mind. The more he has to look for the bike, the more he begins to realize that it's hopeless and the more he loses his respect for his father. Wordless scenes still show so much by his simple actions. De Sica actually chose him by how he walked, and it's a simple thing that brings a lot to his character.
And while we focus on Antonio and Bruno, the movie does not give protagonist focus. This is not a movie where the protagonists alone have some bad luck. This is a movie where we simply focus on two people who happen to be experiencing problems everybody is experiencing. The scene where Antonio gets his job has other men complain that they didn't get a job. A powerful early scene has Antonio's wife Maria (Lianella Carell) trading in the family's sheets so they can get back the bicycle—and we see hundreds of piles of sheets all stacked up. We're always reminded that the protagonists aren't alone in this world, and the tragedy is that Antonio never realizes it. He pushes and bothers people who have their own problems, people praying in church to get meager food afterwards, bicycle sellers trying to make a living. Antonio is in a bad place, but he's one among many.
The Bicycle Thief is stark and can be a hard watch. There's little lightness here and the ending is bleak. But then, considering the state of things at the time, it creates a completely understandable picture of postwar Italy.