Last night I watched The Bicycle Thieves again. It is a remarkable little film. Its storytelling is so crisp that it is impossible not to be carried away with it. Of course, it must be; there isn’t much of a story. The hero, Antonio, is just about at rock bottom when he gets a job. To have the job, he must have a bicycle. On the first day of work, his bike is stolen. He spends the rest of the movie looking for the bike. Finally, he tries to steal a bike and gets caught.
Thematically, the film is about empathy, mercy, and the context of our actions. We see the story of two bicycle thieves. First, there is the man who steals Antonio’s bike. He is a villain because we see him from the outside. Second, there is Antonio whose desperate act we understand because we’ve seen what leads up to it. Just as we, in our own lives, manage to justify our transgressions, so we can easily justify his. After all, it isn’t just a bicycle, it is his very life.
The other thief is portrayed as more a professional. He certainly does a better job of stealing the bike. He grabs it on a steep hill and rides down so he is impossible to catch. Antonio, on the other hand, rides up a hill and is easily caught. But it is clear that the original thief is poor. He certainly didn’t steal the bike for the malicious thrill of it. We understand why Antonio eventually steals a bike, but it is clear that there is a string of injustices that have led to Antonio’s crime. It is not the case that the injustice started with the theft of Antonio’s bicycle.
There is no justice in the world. We try, of course. We certainly get the illusion of justice. If Antonio had the other thief arrested, what justice is that? He would not get the bike back—it has surely been sold. Instead another poor soul who is likely no less deserving of sympathy would go to jail. How does that make the universe any more right? But there can be mercy.
One of the key moments in the film comes when the crowd is taking Antonio to the police. His son, Bruno, is following along crying. The man whose bike Antonio stole decides not to press charges. He is clearly touched by the desperation of the father and the sadness of the child. This gets to the core of why I so love this film. None of the characters in it are particularly good or noble. But they are at their best when they empathize with each other.
The film ends with Bruno giving his father his hat that had fallen on the ground after being caught by the crowd. Then, Bruno takes his father’s hand. They are both despondent—sadder than they’ve been the whole movie. We see them walk away from the camera, and soon they are subsumed in the crowd. Their personal tragedy is just one of many. Life goes on. Justice is denied. And we feast on the crumbs of each other’s mercy.