The Kids Stay in the Picture: Bicycle Thieves, by Aaron Pinkston
Though comedian W.C. Fields famously said “Never work with animals or children,” the cinema is full of wonderful stories told through the eyes of the young. Films with child protagonists span every genre, generation, and film movement. “The Kids Stay in the Picture” surveys this interesting subgenre, following the School of the Art Institute and Gene Siskel Film Center film series “The Child in Cinema.” The series will cover the many historical and social contexts around why films centered on children are so integral to the landscape of world cinema.
It had been a long time since the last time I saw Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, some point while I was in film school, and I definitely didn’t think of it as a film that would fit into a survey of child cinema. You can envision or recast the film without the child, but this context completely changes the film, especially the emotional complexity of the film’s themes and conclusions.
The Italian Neorealism movement is a strain of post-World War II filmmaking that often dealt with the lower class. These films were exclusively shot in black-and-white with dubbed audio and usually shot on location with the real members of the community used as extras and in other roles. This last point is particularly apparent in Bicycle Thieves, which shows off a very different version of Rome than we usually see in the more lavish dramas and Hollywood films that shot there. Key sequences of the film use large crowds of extras to add pressure to the main characters and show their psychological states—the crowds feel as authentic as every other aspect of the film. Though they are far from it, the aesthetic has the feel of a documentary capturing the humanity of ordinary people. For the purposes of this series, children are extremely important for the movement, with children playing key roles in Rome, Open City; Shoeshine; and The Children Are Watching Us, among others. This is most likely because of the movement’s focus on lower class families and the extra dramatic weight that comes with centering stories around children.
Since Bicycle Thieves (and, yes, if you prefer to refer to the film as The Bicycle Thief, you are wrong) is so well known, a full plot synopsis isn’t needed. Suffice it to say, a bicycle is stolen, which leads Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) and his son (Enzo Staiola) through the streets of Rome to find the thief. As it helped him secure a job pasting Hollywood posters around the city after a long time without work, the required bicycle stands in for something much more important than merely being a bicycle. De Sica shows Antonio’s struggle is shown in sharp, realistic and bleak tone without a lot of narrative frill—the 90-minute film is basically three specific plot events and the characters’ reactions to each. Characteristic to its movement, however, Bicycle Thieves is much more complicated than its simple plot, no matter how gritty and realistic that may be.
While it is arguable that neither Jackie Coogan or Shirley Temple were the lead characters in their respective films, there is no doubt that Bruno’s father is the major focus of Bicycle Thieves. Bruno’s place in the film is strange as he’s more of a witness to the plot than a motivating character, literally following his father around the city, but we don’t really see the film strictly through his eyes (the climatic scene may be an exception, but we’ll get there). He doesn’t offer much practical help to find the bicycle, but he’s always there, a few steps behind, something like a traditional sidekick.
Given that Antonio is the clear focus of the film, his presence as a father becomes quite interesting. Quite frankly, he can only use that “Best Dad in the World” coffee cup ironically. To put it nicely, Antonio is a bit of a daydreamer and perhaps not the brightest guy. In the film’s opening scene, he misses his call to work, separated from the unemployed crowd, not paying attention to the prospect of a life-changing event. As the film goes on, we see Antonio’s ineffectiveness in many ways, from the obvious bicycle dealings to improper accusations and difficulty getting information out of witnesses. When Antonio brings his son to a nice restaurant in hopes to briefly forget their bad situation it is a nice moment, but feels too extravagant.
Still, Bruno looks up to Antonio with complete adoration. Bicycle Thieves really speaks to the unique bond between father and son. This is a theme that many films about young boys explores—quite often with the father figure not being a prime role model, but the son learning lessons of masculinity anyway. In some ways, Bruno is more responsible, as he’s holding down a job while his father is not. Critic and filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire notes that the film’s central relationship drama points to Bruno “looking after” his father.
In the landmark final sequence, after Antonio has been caught trying to duplicate the film’s integral act, Bruno becomes something like a mirror of morality. Seeing his father being harangued by his captors, the child shows a set of complex emotions that can be read in so many ways. The young actor’s performance in this scene really reinforces the tragedy of the moment. His response is both sadness for his father being caught and deep shame for his actions. There is no other moment in the film where Bruno shows this type of emotion. He cries after being struck by his father and he is certainly affected by the stakes in the film, but this is a more universal moment. It is the moment in Bruno’s life where his innocence is broken, where he realizes that good people can do bad things.
Unlike Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple, Staiola did not become a major film star, though he does have sporadic credits all the way through the 1970s. Like in many Italian Neorealist films, the majority of the cast were non-professional actors, often in their first film role. The only other film title I recognize for Staiola is Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa, but I don’t think the role of ‘Busboy’ has much stake in the lavish drama. As for his performance, Staiola is more than serviceable, a realistic representation of a child dealing with the heavy pressures of poverty, but more vibrant than you’d expect with the dower atmosphere. Again unlike Coogan and Temple, the performance is bolstered by star-making opportunity, which makes him much more real, more child-like. This is a definite shift in what we look for in a child performance, a prototype of Quvenzhané Wallis and Jacob Tremblay and other performances heralded because of children performing like children.
 Charles Burnett, “Bicycle Thieves: Ode to the Common Man,” The Criterion Collection
 Godfrey Cheshire, “Bicycle Thieves: A Passionate Commitment to the Real,” The Criterion Collection