In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
For decades after its original release, Vittorio De Sica’s most famous film, Ladri Di Biciclette, was known in the U.S. as The Bicycle Thief. Purists always complained about this, because the original title is plural for a reason—there’s more than one bicycle thief in the movie, which is its entire tragic point. Consequently, there’s been a movement in recent years to start calling the film Bicycle Thieves, as the Criterion Collection did when they issued their DVD in 2002. Truthfully, it doesn’t really matter much—The Bicycle Thief works just fine in the same way that, for example, The Master does, as a title that initially seems straightforward but takes on an additional meaning by the closing credits. Emphasizing the plural does help, though, in clarifying that De Sica meant for his protagonist, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), to represent an entire class of desperate, hopeless postwar Italians. The movie is full of potential bicycle thieves, and it upends our assumption that only a reprehensible person would commit such an act.
De Sica gets this idea across visually in a number of different ways. The most obvious is his recurring use of large crowds at key moments—most notably in the film’s final shot, as Antonio and his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), walk disconsolately toward an uncertain but likely miserable future, gradually being swallowed up by dozens of others who (it’s strongly implied via cinematic grammar) are in roughly the same boat. Even early on, however, in scenes when Antonio isn’t part of a mass of humanity, there are constant reminders that we’re seeing just one story out of many. Perhaps the most quietly affecting of these moments comes when Antonio and his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), pawn their dowry sheets so that they can afford to get Antonio’s bicycle out of hock, as he needs it for the job he’s just miraculously landed. In theory, this is a scene that’s required both to advance the plot and to make it clear just how strapped for cash this family is, but De Sica uses it for a third purpose as well, largely via set design.
Interestingly, this pawn shop isn’t “established” in any conventional way. The film dissolves from a previous scene in Antonio and Maria’s house directly to a shot of Maria at the little window, pushing her bundles through to be appraised; it’s not until the end of the scene, when Antonio collects his bicycle, that we’re given a look at the common area, and even that’s barely a glimpse. A long line of other customers are visible behind Maria through the window, from the pawnbroker’s point of view, but De Sica declines to place the camera among them. Instead, after a quick shot/reverse-shot sequence in which both Maria and the pawnbroker are framed by the small window, he shoots the rest of the scene from within the employee area, thereby diminishing Maria, Antonio (once he pokes his head into the window), and all of the other people behind them. The same pattern holds when Antonio goes to the next window to redeem his bicycle: First there’s a series of complementary shots in which both characters are framed by the window, then the camera moves behind the counter, opening up the world of those who profit from misfortune while leaving our hero’s world constricted—at least until he receives his precious bicycle.
The money shot, however, comes during this second transaction. Antonio’s bike is just one of what looks like roughly a dozen that are hanging in the back room, impeding their owners’ ability to make a living. (It’s made clear in the film’s opening scene that without the bike, Antonio won’t be given the job, which requires him to glue posters up all over town; his offer to walk for the first couple of weeks is quickly shot down.) As the clerk searches for the matching tag, however, another clerk wanders by holding the couple’s pawned bedding, and the camera—representing Antonio’s gaze—follows him into an adjoining room in which similar bundles are piled on wooden shelves all the way to the very high ceiling. There look to be at least a hundred sets of sheets (or whatever else people might pawn), and the clerk actually has to climb the shelves in order to file Antonio and Maria’s bundle where it belongs; the camera pans up with him as he ascends, revealing twice as many shelves and bundles as had been visible from the ground. It’s quite likely that Steven Spielberg and/or Lawrence Kasdan remembered this scene when devising the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, in which the Ark Of The Covenant gets lost among thousands of identical crates.
De Sica doesn’t dwell on this disturbing image, as the film has barely even begun (this scene takes place about six minutes in) and is currently devoted to creating the illusion that things are looking up for Antonio, so that it can start crushing him shortly thereafter. The clerk wheels his bike out to him, and he’s plainly overjoyed to have it back, quickly rushing off to secure his new position. All the same, it’s impossible not to look at that gigantic tower of pawned valuables and think of how many unseen Antonios are experiencing the same basic struggle, without the benefit of a camera to document their plight. Unconsciously, we multiply every hardship that follows—including the devastating moment in which Antonio, whose bicycle has been stolen, and who’s lost hope of recovering it, steals someone else’s bike in turn—by the number of bundles viewed in this short scene. Each one represents a hard-luck story, and there’s no reason to assume that the others are significantly different from the one we happen to be watching. That’s why all of the bundles look more or less the same, as opposed to the hodgepodge of random junk one might reasonably expect to see on the shelves of a pawnbroker. There isn’t just one bicycle thief, but neither are there only two. The film’s original title speaks to a truth much sadder than that.