Despair drives an honest man to commit a criminal act but the simple gesture of a little boy restores his humanity and humility. Director Vittorio De Sica’s quest into that undiscovered country of human conscience is told succinctly and without melodrama, a path through impoverished streets and dingy rooms, clad in rags and empty of cash…but full of life.
Antonio is part of the faceless mass of unemployed workers, a man who relies on his wife and little boy to sustain their meager existence. He is offered a job that requires a bicycle but his has been pawned to keep them from starving. His quick-thinking wife strips the bed and sells the cotton bed sheets for enough money to buy back the bicycle. But Antonio’s dream is crushed on the very first day when his bike is stolen and the remainder of the film becomes a desperate quest to find this Holy Grail.
This odyssey becomes a life and death struggle, a means to survive, but it is much more than that: it is Antonio’s very manhood that is at stake, his self-respect. He is impotent without a job and the bicycle has become a symbol of his accomplishment…and his guilt in allowing it to be stolen. His compulsion to find the thief and recover the bike is to prove his worth to his family and himself. The joy when he is able to buy back the bike from the pawnshop is one of spiritual exuberance in a dirty world where religion has no place, where doors must be locked so the poor doesn’t leave before super. When Antonio is forced to steal as a last option, he becomes the very thing he despises, it is total destruction. He is lost, dehumanized, a ghost who possesses his mysterious skin. But it’s Bruno who takes his father’s calloused hand and resurrects his soul in a way that holy words can never achieve.
This is also a story concerning a loss of faith; not only Antonio’s but a whole society victimized by war. There is no mythical quality, no help from above, no miracle that sets our helpless protagonist apart from the liars and thieves. The church is full of hungry stomachs who mutter vacuous prayers so they can stand in a soup line. De Sica damns the church and their meager efforts by exclusion from the narrative: mythology is reflexive and the godhead impotent.
De Sica films in crowded streets and dirty tenements, a bitter reflection of post-war Rome, and his use of unknown actors helps the film become the penumbra of Hollywood reality, juxtaposed with the very posters that Antonio pastes on walls. This isn’t real life but a more direct montage of real life, with the stink and wretchedness of poverty: here, being poor doesn’t make you a better person, it crushes the spirit.
Final Grade: (A)