Desperation in Vittorio de Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (1948)

I’ve recently moved to Florence in Italy and one of the classes I’m taking is “History of Italian Cinema”. We’ve been focussing on Italian neorealism, which has been absolutely exciting for me. Analyzing the films and writing reviews on them has been quite a joyous experience because once I have an idea, all these connections start to appear and the film(s) takes on a whole new meaning filled with intertextuality, symbolism, and greater depth to the chosen shots I hadn’t considered before.

It’s not so great when your professor hands you back your essay, having underlined terminology and interesting points and written “ok” in the margin. So I thought I’d use my theater blog to spend some time looking at Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette, or as it is known in English, Bicycle Thieves (1948) and put my two cents in (the title is often mistakenly translated as Bicycle Thief, minor but significant detail). My ideas may or may not be original, but dang it – I had things I wanted to say. This is by no means extensive because really an entire book should be written about the film, but it’s a snippet looking at particular shots. So here we go:


What struck me about Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) was the portrayal of desperation. There is a sheer feeling of desperation in the reality that Ricci faces, knowing that the bicycle affects his entire life. In a snowball effect, the loss of his bicycle means he is unable to work and therefore unable to provide for his family.

As much as the story follows Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) in his quest to find his bike, it is also about following his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), and observing their relationship. When Ricci is about to head off for his first day at work, there is a two shot of him with Bruno as they put their omelets into their pocket. They dress almost similarly, and the gaze they exchange between them within this shot depicts a loving relationship between them. This two shot is important, as it is the first shot where the audience has a look at both of them as father and son, without a bike between them (see featured image of the post). Prior to this, dialogue between them has had them existing on different frames. Bruno actually works on cleaning the bicycle and talks to his father, but they are never in the same shot with the bike before stepping out of the house. Though most of the film proceeds to revolve around finding the bicycle rather than it being constantly seen visually, the bicycle is present in the psychology of Ricci, which then slowly creates a sense of distance between father and son. Finding the bicycle becomes more important than the immediate care of Bruno, who is seen falling down and even almost getting hit by a car.

De Sica employs the use of wide-angle shots in order for the audience to follow the action and contextualize the scenario with the location, Rome. This then creates a visual emphasis of trying to find a needle in a haystack, of trying to find one bicycle in the city of Rome. These wide shots, however, are also an opportunity to see Ricci’s son trailing behind him. The first moment Bruno is first seen following his father, is when Ricci carries his bike out of the house. Bruno trails behind him for an instant, before turning back to realize that his baby sister lies on the bed. He closes the window so his sister (I assume sister for some reason) will not feel cold, a moment that also alienates the audience and creates this sense that the viewer is observing the lives of Ricci and Bruno unfold. The second instant that the audience is alienated, which is almost immediately after the first, is when there is a two shot of Ricci and Bruno standing by the door of their house. Ricci bids his wife farewell and closes the door. Both moments of alienation, first by the son then by the father, serve to inform the audience that both characters are equally important to the story. They also are used by De Sica to emphasize the role of the audience as an observer.

The camera often stays with Bruno, catching the moments when he is on his own. The audience is also frequently shown his point of view. This has a strong emotional weight to the film, most notably when Ricci decided to steal a bicycle. This moment is marked by an asymmetrical shot divided by a street post, making it seem as though Ricci is literally crossing the line from victim to thief and there is no going back when he does. Bruno sees his father riding off with the bike and then getting caught. Bruno makes his way through the crowd of people to be near his father, tight shot which serves to elevate the anxiety of the scene. As they hold hands and walk through the crowd of people around them, De Sica restrains using a two shot for this scene and only does so from behind them. They walk with a crowd of people, a moment that recalls the beginning of the film where Ricci stood amongst a crowd waiting for news of work. Seeing individual shots of the father crying and the boy in despair heighten the desperation and sense of complete loss that a two shot would shatter. What is important is to see them holding hands together, their faces visibly showing their utter loss and uncertainty of what is to come.

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The moment before Ricci steals a bicycle. The composition reminds me of some of Lee Friedlander’s photographs.




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