In Nathan Rabin vs. The IMDb Top 250, Nathan Rabin uses a random number generator to select one of the 250 best films of all time as chosen by the popular cinematic database, and then determines whether the individual ranking of any specific film seems high, low, or just right. (Note: To maintain a consistent list ranking, we are using the list as it appeared on September 15, 2014.)
Title: Bicycle Thieves
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Year of release: 1948
There are some movies I will always associate with college film classes. 1948’s Bicycle Thieves (alternately known as The Bicycle Thief) is one of those movies—in part, because it’s within a college film course that many see Bicycle Thieves for the first, and often only, time. It’s the kind of movie college kids are forced to see for their edification, if not necessarily entertainment. It’s also the kind of film that so powerfully represents an artistic movement—in this case, Italian neorealism—that it essentially embodies that movement.
The beauty in Bicycle Thieves lies in its simplicity. The film casts the ruggedly handsome Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio Ricci, a common man in Rome struggling to provide for his family in an economically depressed city where everyone seems to be suffering and everyone seems to have their hands out. Then one day, he scores a good job that requires him to have a bicycle. Having hocked his bike at a pawn shop, he raises enough money to buy it back, but then is mortified to have it stolen almost immediately after retrieving it.
On the one hand, the stakes here are low: a common man’s lost bicycle. Within the context of Rome, which the film depicts as a living, breathing organism that swallows up shabby men like Antonio, the man’s loss is inconsequential. This is underlined when he goes to the police station to file a report assuming that the police will actually go out and look for his lost bike. He is too distraught and naive to realize just how ridiculous that notion is, but the police quickly disabuse him of his illusions by letting him know his case belongs somewhere in the “why even bother?” file, and that if he wants his bike back, he needs to get it back himself.
Within the context of Antonio’s life, however, the stolen bike could scarcely be of more importance. It is his connection to a good job, something seemingly everyone in Rome needs, as well as his ability to stand proudly as a working man who supports his family. It’s more than just a bike. It’s Antonio’s dignity, his soul, his means of self-actualization, and a tool to separate him from the oceans of similarly ramshackle men desperate for a tiny number of decent paying positions. An actor himself, director Vittorio De Sica shoots Maggiorani, a non-professional before De Sica decided to make him a movie star, in ways that emphasize how insignificant he is within the context of a massive, airy Rome full of wide-open spaces where people and things can easily get lost and never found.
Though it will forever be associated with neorealism, Bicycles Thieves is on some level a thriller about a man who has lost something of tremendous value and must regain it for him to be able to function in a universe coldly indifferent to his needs and the needs of his family. It’s not just that the bike has been stolen: Antonio is told that the bike has been pulled apart for spare parts. This puts him in the position of not just looking for a man he only saw for a moment while he was robbing his bike, but of attempting to identify his bike’s individual components from a sea of lookalikes. Every moment the bike is gone, the tension builds to almost unbearable levels, and Antonio, an agreeable everyman under most circumstances, begins to snap.
When I first saw Bicycle Thieves in college I related to the main character’s predicament precisely because it’s designed to be as universal as possible. We’re not all Italian laborers post-World War II (in fact, I would argue that at this point very few of us are), but who among us can’t relate to losing something of incredible value and feeling deep in your bones that nothing in the world will ever be right again unless you and this item of incredible value are reunited again? Watching Bicycle Thieves again, I related even more powerfully to Antonio, because as a father I know what it’s like to experience the terror that you will not be able to support your family. I know the anxiety of having a family that depends on you, and knowing that if you fail, you’re not just failing yourself, you’re failing your partner and someone you brought into the world.
Bicycle Thieves is about humanity, but it’s also about money and the cruelty of a capitalist system that can transform a man’s life into a nightmare over something as seemingly insignificant as a stolen bike. While maintaining the sense that it is merely capturing life as it is lived in Rome among the common people, Bicycle Thieves builds in suspense until, in his sweaty desperation, Antonio betrays himself and his ideals by committing the same crime that has torn his world apart.
And though the world of Bicycle Thieves can be quite cruel, it can also be quite kind. Despite his late-film transgression, Antonio receives a pardon of sorts from a man who recognizes something of himself in this simple man’s struggling. That’s why Bicycle Thieves has endured the way it has: It’s remarkable how many people throughout the world and throughout the years can look at this particular Roman man in 1948 and see a reflection of their own struggles.
Too high or too low? Too low
Nathan’s Revised IMDb Top 250 Rating (based on films covered for this series so far)
1. The Best Years Of Our Lives
2. Some Like It Hot
3. Blade Runner
4. North By Northwest
5. In The Mood For Love
8. Django Unchained
9. Bicycle Thieves
10. The Silence Of The Lambs
11. Roman Holiday
12. All About Eve
13. Batman Begins
15. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
16. Stand By Me
17. The Lives Of Others
18. Requiem For A Dream
19. Hotel Rwanda
21. Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl
22. The Truman Show
23. Blood Diamond
25. Slumdog Millionaire