Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves is a simple fable - simple enough to invite interpretation as one of the defining texts of neo-realist cinema (human story of unemployment in post-War Italy), as a crime narrative (man hunts down those responsible for stealing his wheels) and, in some way, as a tragic love affair between a man and his bike. As father and son (Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola, one of the cinema's great little-and-large double-acts) hotfoot around Rome, it becomes clear that, in this world, property equals mobility; you simply can't go anywhere without it. (De Sica here establishes one of the key themes of the late 20th century.) The bicycle thief is free to freewheel around the city's cavernous pawnshops and make a nice earner for himself; his victim ends up utterly emasculated, unable to provide for his family, mocked by cyclists wherever he goes.
It's a film about how lonely it can seem on the bottom rungs of the social ladder: the father receives no help from the police, his fellow workers, or - most damningly - the Church in his quest: everybody's lost in their own lives, too busy trying to get by themselves. And it's a film about how unfair life can be on the desperate, powerfully illustrated by the final scenes: when our hero's stolen from, nobody's interested, yet as soon as he himself steals, the whole world comes crashing down on him. Bicycle Thieves is never heavy-handed, however. That De Sica maintains a lightness throughout - largely through that father-son relationship, always hopeful, forever optimistic: the understanding is that we will find this bike together - is, in the circumstances, little short of miraculous.
Bicycle Thieves is available on DVD through Arrow Films.