Made with a cast of principals who were picked up in Rome’s streets and had never before faced a camera, and with a story [from a novel by Luigi Bartolini] incredible in its simplicity as a basis for a 90-minute film, the picture is a pure exercise in directorial virtuosity. The beauty of it, however, is that that is never apparent. There are no obvious tricks and no obvious striving.
On the surface it is nothing more than the theft of a bicycle from one of the army of unemployed in postwar Rome and his efforts to find the thief and recover the vehicle. In the bicycle Antonio sees the security of himself and his family, necessary to his job in a city where jobs are scarce. He sets out with his young son on a Sunday morning to find the bike before nightfall so that he won’t be without a job when it comes time for work on Monday morning.
The pair visit Rome’s secondhand bicycle mart, get into an evangelical free-lunch mission and even into a brothel, several times see the bike and its thief, finally catch him, and then can’t prove he stole it. Antonio, in desperation, is finally driven to stealing one.
As the son Bruno, Enzo Staiola is the star of the film, if it has one. His funny face, serious but urchin-like manner and ability to win laughs with the minor troubles he gets himself into rank him as a top moppet performer, despite lack of any previous experience. Likewise a tyro who turns in a touching performance is Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio.
Picture moves along at an unaccustomedly good pace, except for one slack spot midway. Fortunately, there are plenty of laughs to balance the more serious drama. Photography throughout is firstrate in a hard documentary manner.
1949: Best Foreign Language Film