What makes it so enduring? What is so damn great about the movie? It is not its trenchant portrayal of post-war Italian poverty and misery. Lots of films did that even better. It is not in any sense of real drama, which is very schematic. Nor even the unforgettably truthful acting, that iconic face of pint-sized Enzo Staiola. We get truthful acting and iconic faces all over the place. It is, I believe, its sense of compassion, its sense of poetry. Those are rarer qualities. The movie is compassionate poetry. I don't know if writer Cesare Zavattini or director Vittorio De Sica would have appreciated that phrase. I feel they might have. I feel it is exactly the truth they were after. To be sure, the film is a story of father and little-boy in search of what is lost, a necessity yes, but also a lost dream. The endangered hope for a better life to come challenges this paternal/filial relationship. In that sense, this is a film-poem, God help me, about Everyfather and Everylittleboy.
The most chilling moment in the poem occurs when little Bruno sees his father steal, and a tearful horror glazes his face as a god seems to collapse. The most redemptive moment comes shortly thereafter when the boy slips his hand into his father's. That forgiveness is not cheap or facile. It is unassailable and all-comforting. It is a forgiving embrace of Virgilian dignity. For a magnificent instant the father, Antonio, has become the son; Bruno, the son, has become the father. At the end, when they walk off into the Roman crowd, they are as one.
I have written many thoughts about this film over the years, including an extended exegesis for a local newspaper. I have programmed it in film series, shown it to film classes, Italian classes. I know the movie. Friends, the movie is not about stolen bicycles, indifferent police, bicycle chop-shop gargoyles, mouth-foaming lowlife, desperate actions by the desperate, or mere journalistic human interest that is gone with tomorrow's edition. Its worth resides in its lyric portrayal of the eternal curative power of love. No small thing.
Two addenda: the song being rehearsed at the workers' club Antonio visits to see his friend is called "Ciccio Formaggio." The song being sung and played by the restaurant musicians when Antonio and his son eat together is "Tummuriata nera," about the mulatto offspring of an Italian woman and a black soldier. The lyrics for both songs, in Neapolitan dialect, can be found by Googling the titles. Recordings by Roberto Murolo of both songs are available.