In a full expression of Italian Neo-Realsim, The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) uses the ending scenes to depict the absolute tragedy and the absolute triumph of humanity.
Papa (Lamberto Maggiorani) and Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are exhausted after a long day searching for Papa’s stolen bicycle. The use of non-professional actors in the main roles is part of the genius on Italian Neo-Realism cinema. Because they are real people, the emotion that plays across their faces is much more authentic. Viewers can believe that this man has felt in his real life the frustration and despair that the scene requires of him.
Papa and Bruno enter the square across from the soccer game and are faced with the pure irony of life. Papa is about to lose his job because he does not have a bicycle, and he walks into a square filled with bicycles. The two sit on the sidewalk in silence; they seem to be separated psychologically from each other, but connected emotionally. Bruno, even at his young age, can sense the despair of his father. He does not fully understand what is happening, but he knows that Papa is in pain and he takes part in that. This scene does not have much dialog, but the faces of Papa and Bruno tell the story.
In a performance that would make any silent film star proud, viewers can see thoughts cross Papa’s face as he notices a lone bicycle across the street. Papa wonders if he can steal the bicycle and keep his job. Is the dignity of providing food and shelter for his family more important than the dignity of knowing he is an honest man unable to support those he loves? What example must he set for his son who is watching closely? In this cinema of extremes, Papa is so caught up in his emotions, that he only sees two options available to him: steal a bicycle and keep his job or remain honest and possible lose his family.
The lone bicycle still leans against the wall, almost taunting Papa with its accessibility. He paces, drawing out his decision, raising the tension for the viewers. He half-heartedly commits to his course of action and gives Bruno money to take the streetcar home; he doesn’t want his son to see him turn into a criminal. Bruno has seen Papa be a victim all day and that has been humiliation enough. The two part ways as Papa walks toward the lone bicycle and Bruno walks toward the streetcar, but he hesitates and misses the car. What he sees will shape him more than if he had gone home to wait.
Papa’s inner turmoil is projected by the cinematography of the scene. A long shot shows the white wall of a building, a tall pole divides the building in half, Papa on the right side, the bicycle is on the left. Papa paces for a moment, his hand running nervously over his mouth. Will he cross the line between honesty and thievery?
Finally, Papa grabs the bicycle and runs, the owner close behind him crying for help. Papa being caught for his theft is one of the first acts of justice in the movie; however, viewers feel that the system has been so unjust to him that his victimization is taken to a deeper level. The tragedy of the moment is played out on Bruno’s face as he runs to help his father, realizing that his father is a thief. But this is also the moment of the triumph of humanity as the owner of the bicycle sees Bruno’s despair and lets Papa go. He knows that the shame of Papa’s actions in front of his son will haunt him more than jail.
The two walk home, Papa unable to look at Bruno, and Bruno clutching Papa’s hand, attempting to stop the tears. Will Bruno grow up believing that the system does not work and that good and bad is skewed somehow? What will become of Papa and his family?
There are more questions at the end of the film than there were at the beginning, but the Neo-Realists have no problem with that. This is life, this is truth, and there are no apologies made.