Of boys and men: On Enzo Staiola in "The Bicycle Thieves" (1948)


Enzo Staiola gives one of the great child performances in the movies in The Bicycle Thieves (dir. Vittorio de Sica, 1948), playing Bruno, the young son of the beleaguered Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani).  When Ricci’s much-prized bicycle is stolen and he takes to the streets of Rome in hopes of recovering it, Bruno is charged with helping his father, assuming the role of sidekick, deputy, co-pilot, buddy.  In the world of this film, where the children of the poor grow up fast, there is no condescending to Bruno on account of his age—not by Ricci, and not by de Sica. 

They’re roles that Bruno approaches with the seriousness of a grown-up; much of the film’s humor derives from the gravity with which he takes on the responsibility of helping out with this most important mission.  The first time he appears in the film, we’re invited to laugh at how much this three-foot-tall kid (Staiola was seven years old when the film was shot) behaves like a grown man, affecting a masculine swagger that we can only assume he has picked up by observing the men around him.  When he notices that the bicycle has been dented while it was in the pawnshop, he voices outrage over the pawnbroker’s carelessness: “who knows how they care for them?  They don’t pay for the repairs!”  His affectation of a grown-up’s bravado comes off as clownish.  But it also bespeaks a toughness, a strength of will that reoccurs throughout the film.  More than just a clown: a boy of opinions and decisions, wise beyond his years (aged prematurely, perhaps, by the harshness of his own experience, working as a shine boy to help support his impoverished family).  As he prepares to leave with his father for the day, he smiles at his infant sibling sleeping on the bed and closes the window in a gesture of benevolence and protection.               

Playing the grown-up.

Later: the trattoria.  A reconciliation between father and son after an argument.  The father has lost the son’s respect by treating him like a subordinate where once they were equals, slapping his face and reprimanding him.  Now the father repairs the bond by treating him like a fellow man again.  “Let’s get drunk,” he says.  The wine they drink comes in a carafe.  “If your mother could see us!”  They bond over this shared secret.  Bruno trying (and failing) to cut his food with a knife and a fork like his father, made self-conscious by the withering gaze of the rich boy at the next table.  Never mind any of that.  He is with his father: two men sharing in the communion of a meal.  The moment is golden.  They are equals again.

At the trattoria.

The Bicycle Thieves: Bruno’s story or his father’s?  That ending is so profoundly moving because their roles have shifted yet again.  The father, shamed for his cowardice, made to cringe from the shocked and horrified gaze of his child.  The child made to see his father for the first time not as a god but as a man, fallible and desperate.  It is a moment of tremendous power for Bruno.  He has the power to comfort and forgive.  Taking his father’s hand in his, he says: I see you and I forgive you.  Ricci’s story is that of a man bent by his circumstances to the point of breaking; Bruno’s story is that of a child falling out of innocence into knowledge about what men are.  He has gone from aping the mannerisms of a grown-up in the first scene to behaving with an adult knowledge in the last.

Grown up for real.

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