Vittorio De Sica named his 1948 Neorealist film Ladri di Biciclette. When translated literally to English, it means Bicycle Thieves. But due to poor translation, most people in our country know it as The Bicycle Thief. These two title interpretations point to very different perspectives where the film’s focus may lie. Does the film center on one character, Antonio Ricci, who after enduring the gauntlet of daily life in post-war Italy attempts to steal a bicycle? Or, does the film’s core lie in the collective group of various characters we encounter throughout the narrative? These questions supply a provocative distinction, which ironically throughout Bicycle Thieves, De Sica wrestles with. He utilizes his Neorealist aesthetic to explore the contrast and conflict of the group versus the individual. And it is through the help of the bicycle as metaphor that De Sica reaches a greater understanding of this struggle. Considering a few scenes from the film, that understanding becomes clear.
There’s no better place to start than the beginning. The opening scene of Bicycle Thieves features a large group of men in a medium wide shot. The man at the top of the steps calls Ricci’s name. Another man, concerned, begins to physically move through the group, pushing his way through in search of Ricci. De Sica cuts to an extreme wide shot as this man spots Ricci, still off screen. Continuing the complex shot, we follow the man as he rushes across the street to meet Ricci. The shot pans, dollies right, and tilts down to reveal our hero, Antonio Ricci sitting on his side, playing in a puddle as though he were a child. The complicated and dynamic shot draws attention to the distance between Ricci and the group, not just physically, but emotionally. He doesn’t appear driven and desperate, like the other men. The concerned man towers over him and, as though Ricci’s parent, demands, “Are you deaf? Come on! Get a move on.” With this one shot and moment De Sica hints towards a thematic dynamic between Ricci, the individual, and the workers, the group: a parent-child relationship. Ricci seems less developed than the other men.
In the same scene, we realize further the importance of groups for De Sica’s setting. In response to those begging for work, the man at the top of the steps says, “You’re a bricklayer. That’s a different category.” Through this exchange, we grasp the notion that grouping is a major part of this society directly tied to livelihood. More than that, the group here suffers in a way much like Ricci does later. But now, without a group, Ricci gets a job. The conflict of the group succeeding over the individual and vice versa established here, constantly receives a back and forth throughout the film, maintaining a challenging balance. The pressure immediately falls to Ricci; he needs a bicycle in order to get the job, or else someone from the group will get it.
Over the years, there have been many readings of the bicycle’s significance in the film. Because Ricci’s bicycle is called “Fides”, many take the translation, faith, as the significant meaning. And it is significant; however, an alternative translation, trust, proves to be just as interesting. In any close relationship trust is important, especially in a familial one, in which the individual must balance their needs over the needs of the family. We soon learn after his introduction that Ricci pawned his bicycle in order to feed his family; he gave up his trust. And in order to survive, he must get it back. He and Maria, his wife, go to the pawnbroker and using their sheets, their comfort, they buy back into society.
Here, De Sica uses a simple mise-en-scène to communicate on the group/individual dynamic. Maria stands in the pawnbroker’s window opening. All around her in the frame is the opaque window. We can’t see anything through it, though occasionally in the small opening we catch glimpses of a large crowd behind her. She shoves her sheets through: the sacrifice. She and Ricci receive money, and then the camera stays for a moment as they exit. The next customer walks up; he passes a pair of binoculars through the opening. De Sica lingers here, because though we are following Ricci, his situation isn’t individual. De Sica wants us to understand that many are enduring a similar kind of bankruptcy.
If this clever use of mise-en-scène were not enough to make his point, he then provides us with one of the most haunting shots of the film. While Ricci waits for another pawnbroker to return his Fides, he watches as his sheets are stocked. A somber musical score trickles into the scene. De Sica utilizes a POV shot that pans with the stocker as he approaches a warehouse style shelving unit that towers up and out of the wide frame. We hold steady with the stocker as he inspects the sheets. Then the shot slowly tilts up as the stocker climbs the stack of shelves jam-packed with what appears to be thousands of sheets. Because De Sica manages to connect sacrifice with the image of sheets in the earlier scene, there is a heavy sense of awe and loss in the spectacle. De Sica then cuts to a medium high-angle on Ricci as he stares up at the depressing display, reminding us that we are seeing this through Ricci’s eyes. He cuts back to the tilt as the stocker reaches the top of the shelves and slams Ricci’s sheets onto the pile, rendering them completely indistinguishable from those around them. He shows us that Ricci isn’t the only one making sacrifices; he is an individual among many.