ByBen Sibley, writer at
Avid film fan and film-maker. Love cinematography and great storytelling.
Ben Sibley

Vittorio De Sica’s formation of empathy in Bicycle Thieves

After the end of World War II, rampant poverty, disease, and crippled infrastructure, were just a few of the issues Italians faced. The country was still struggling to cope with the repercussions of the war and move beyond the pervasive legacy of Mussolini’s fascist regime, German occupation, and civil war. Italy’s economic state was in absolute turmoil, however, this bleak reality produced some of the most honest and transcendent filmmaking in cinema history. The inception of the neorealist movement produced impactful films from directors, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica. In particular, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is heralded as a cinematic masterpiece, just as brilliantly riveting today as it was upon release. It “is so well-entrenched as an official masterpiece that it is a little startling to visit it again after many years and realize that it is still alive and has strength and freshness.” The film’s lasting greatness can be attributed to its masterful construction of empathy, which allows it to remain relevant and important, even today.

Bicycle Thieves simplistic plot, revolves around an unemployed Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola). Antonio is jubilant after he obtains work putting up posters in economically troubled Rome, but tragically his bicycle is stolen. Antonio and Bruno (age 9) search the city, as they become progressively determined to find humanity and justice.

Perhaps the most fervent theme in Bicycle Thieves is the instinctive empathy towards Antonio that is embedded in the audience. De Sica designs the formation of empathy around two fundamental motifs: Antonio’s inadequacy, and the intrinsic importance of the stolen bicycle. We are exposed to the primary motif, Antonio’s inadequacy, from the film's outset. The first images of Antonio show him alone, sitting on the streets. De Sica blocks the protagonist in the foreground with Italian landscape in the background, representing the emptiness in the life of Antonio. This theme of emptiness is echoed many times throughout the film. De Sica often presents Antonio and Bruno as overwhelmed by the city. He uses many landscape shots and long shots to emphasize the oppressive nature of an impoverished city. In addition to these cinematic decisions, De Sica’s choice of location is essential. The architecture of Italy is intertwined with the plot and in multiple instances, it informs character relations.

After a failed interrogation with the man they believe is the thief, Antonio and Bruno find themselves outside a soccer stadium. Antonio is shown looking at the stadium and then glancing at his son, who seems disturbed. “The stadium is designed in the monumental style of fascist architecture. Rimming its walls are gigantic statues of heroic, idealized athletes -- a cruel reminder to Ricci of all he does not represent to his son.” Moments later, after seeing a lone bicycle, Antonio cannot resist temptation, and he himself becomes the bicycle thief. It is not mere happenstance that Antonio becomes the thief nearby the stadium. Its presence is powerfully disapproving of Antonio, as its grandness is in stark contrast with the belittlement Antonio and Bruno feel. The stadium, and all that it represents, provides the final weight that breaks the ego of Antonio, coercing him to steal.

In addition to minimizing the protagonist via cinematic techniques and architectural decisions, Antonio is displayed as a childlike figure a myriad of times throughout the film. This is most assiduously shown using Bruno. A distinct lack of care and sympathy towards a young Bruno is evident throughout the film. An unforgiving Italy applies its brutality most poignantly on Bruno who falls running in the rain, is routinely yelled at, and is hit on three separate occasions. In post-war Italy, Bruno and his father are considered equals and De Sica subtly conveys this notion throughout the film. Bruno and his father are often shown doing the same actions or behaving in accordance with one another. The similarities De Sica exhibits for the two characters allow the audience project the complete and utter empathy we have for to Bruno, on to Antonio. This directed empathy is subtle yet unknowingly powerful to audience’s psyche.

When we are first introduced to Bruno, he immediately exhibits a maturity that surpasses his father. Dressed in full work attire, young Bruno notices a depression in the frame of the bicycle while cleaning it and indignantly proclaims, “I’d have said something…they don’t pay for the repairs!” Bruno’s dominance is exhibited in copious other occasions and often he “is shown to be more competent than his father.” Bruno works full time at the gas station, making him the only working Ricci. Furthermore, he recalls the serial number of the bicycle, has strong arithmetic abilities, and saves Antonio by finding authorities (policemen) at opportune times. Finally, when visiting the charitable women, Bruno indignantly implores his reticent father to cut the line, “Daddy come on! There’s room now!” These displays of preeminence by Bruno, directly contrast an aloof Antonio.

Antonio’s apathetic demeanor is further expressed following his interaction with the Secretary of the Charity Organization. Antonio sulks when he realizes he needs a bicycle, which he does not possess, in order to work. “Damn the day I was born. I feel like jumping in the river”, he proclaims. This brooding mentality further exemplifies the childlike qualities Antonio possesses, and his “passive, fatalistic response to his dilemma is emphasized by the contrasting way his wife responds.” Maria, his wife, immediately takes action, ripping the sheets off the bed to pawn for a bicycle. De Sicca’s characterization of Antonio also comments on the effects of growing up in a fascist government whose paternalistic ethos minimizes the drive and psyche of its citizens. De Sica uses Antonio’s relationship with his family (Bruno and Maria) to demonstrate his palpable inadequacies. These shortcomings frame Antonio as an innocent victim, easy to empathize with. Antonio’s “very human vulnerability makes his plight all the more affecting.”

De Sica also fosters empathy through the secondary motif: the importance of the stolen bicycle, one of cinemas most meaningful McGuffins. On a basic level, the bicycle’s intrinsic importance rests on its monetary value. Without the bicycle, Antonio cannot work and his family’s financial security is jeopardized. During one of the film’s lighter moments, when Antonio and Bruno dine at a lavish restaurant, Antonio alludes to the bicycle’s importance. “We've got to find it. You know that, don't you? Because if we don't, we won't be able to eat.” The fiscal significance of the bicycle may be the most visible, however its importance is broader. The bicycle’s presence is a representation of Antonio’s manhood. Immediately following the purchase of the bicycle, Antonio displays a rare instance of sexuality towards his wife. This moment is a rarefied glimpse at the man Antonio wishes he could be: a jobholding, passionate, confident man that Bruno can look up to. Moreover, the bicycle typifies Antonio’s relationship with religion. In a literal sense, the bicycle brand is Fides, which translates from Italian to mean “faith”. When Antonio does not have his Fides he loses hope, expressing his despair on multiple occasions. “Why should I kill myself worrying when I'll end up just as dead?” “Your mother and her prayers can't help us.” “You live and you suffer.” De Sica intensifies the importance of the bicycle using it as a symbolic prerequisite to stability, happiness, sexuality, and faith. Thus when it is not found, the audience feels the despair and negativity felt by Antonio and Bruno, heightening the audience’s empathy.

In the end of the Bicycle Thieves, Antonio is shown at the mercy of circumstance. With all hope lost and desperation at its peak, he becomes the thief. Even though the audience knows the pain stealing a bicycle can inflict, we do not see Antonio as a ruthless villain blinded by selfishness. Using cinematography, script choices, architecture, poignant symbolism, De Sica drives empathy to the forefront of the viewer’s consciousness. In the end, these powerful techniques allow the audience to care for the tragedy faced by the protagonist. Furthermore, De Sica breeds understanding in the audience’s mind. Even if a viewer does not know the agony that constant money troubles and creeping feelings of inadequacy can produce, through the Bicycle Thieves, the viewer can understand its effects. “The film succeeds in creating empathy for Antonio’s dejected state so that his ultimate act becomes an understandable and painful reaction. It supplies one possible answer to the question: What makes a thief?” In this way, our empathy is not solely applied to Antonio but rather to humanity as a whole, making the Bicycle Thieves a timeless masterpiece.


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