Vittorio de Sica’s landmark Italian neorealist film Ladri di Biciclette (1948) is, of course, not really about bikes at all. The bicycle operates as a vehicle for the moral and economic dilemmas facing an impoverished postwar Italy trying to redefine itself in the aftermath of the catastrophic events of the war.
Antonio Ricci secures one of the few jobs available in a bleak and war-damaged Rome, provided he has access to a bicycle. Desperate to support his family, he hocks his wedding sheets for a bike, only to have it stolen the next day. The film follows Ricci and his young son Bruno as they engage in a desperate search through the streets of Rome.
The film is beautifully shot in grainy black and white with a poignant documentary feel that comes largely from De Sica’s use of real people off the streets rather than professional actors. The tender love story between father and son on the road brings Fellini’s LaStrada (1954) to mind and there is also a fair bit of Bicycle Thieves in Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997). But Tim Burton’s 1985 tribute Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure probably has the most direct filmic references to the Italian classic, most notably the replication of the scene where Ricci is haunted by hundreds of elusive bicycles that seem to mock him as they sail past.
Ladri di Biciclette was adapted from Luigi Bartolini’s 1946 novel of the same name. Bartolini was a writer and visual artist (predominantly engraver) who published more than 70 works in his lifetime.