Why do some films seem to get endlessly parodied, referenced, and remade decades after their release? Like the sequence of the baby carriage rolling down the steps in 1925’s Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein) or the eponymous “red balloon” of The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse, 1956), we see iconography from certain films repeatedly ported into others.
We may be tempted to assume that classic films are continuously referenced because of their quality. After all, they are often great films that help form the aesthetic sensibility of subsequent generations of filmmakers. But that doesn’t explain why some very good films persist as touchstones in this way while others don’t.
Compare Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) to Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948). Both films are lauded representatives of Italian neorealism, of equivalent quality, and well-known to cinephiles. However, it’s Bicycle Thieves that we see pop up over and over in media, from direct parodies like The Icicle Thief (Maurizio Nichetti, 1989) to homages like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton, 1985) to comedic television adaptations like Modern Family‘s “The Bicycle Thief” (season 1, episode 2, 2009) or Master of None’s “The Thief” (season 2, episode 1, 2017). But why?
There’s a cluster of sociological and linguistic theories called “semiotics” that’s all about how words, sounds, and images create meaning. In these theories, a sign is a unit of meaning and signs work together to form systems of meaning. The way this works in language is fairly intuitive. A word — “bicycle” — is a sign, which works in relationship with other words to form phrases, concepts, ideas, and stories — systems of meaning.
In film, signs are more than the words spoken by characters. As we know, the system of meaning within a film includes so much more: music, how a film is shot, how the narrative is structured, editing choices, sound effects, and all the various visual elements like props, locations, and performances. What makes a film like Bicycle Thieves so endlessly quotable across time, regions, and genres is the high level of recognizability and portability of its sign structure.
The most obvious sign is the bicycle itself. It’s distinct enough to serve as an effective trope when ported into other narratives and universal enough to be understood whether we’ve seen the source text or not. For those who are familiar with Bicycle Thieves, any film or TV show that centers the bicycle in the narrative automatically recalls de Sica’s film.
The bicycle is, of course, more than just a prop. In Bicycle Thieves, it represents hope, the promise of prosperity. It is the conduit for the Ricci family’s happiness and economic security. The theft of the bicycle is not merely an inconvenience, it is devastating. It is the theft of the family’s future.
Films that reference Bicycle Thieves often borrow or play with this idea of the bicycle as a symbol of prosperity. In the beginning of Beijing Bicycle (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001), Guei’s (Cui Lin) bike serves the same function as Ricci’s (Lamberto Maggiorani) in Bicycle Thieves: it is essential to stable employment. When Guei’s bike is stolen, he loses his job and, like Ricci, takes to the city to try to find the bike. However, unlike Ricci, Guei is successful, and after Guei recovers his bike the meaning of it changes. It shifts from a symbol of prosperity to a curse. The recovery of the bike illustrates Guei’s “stubbornness,” as others in the film characterize him, but the film does not reward his persistence. Instead, it leads him to a series of accidents and violent misunderstandings.
In addition to the bicycle, Bicycle Thieves has other elements that make it easily adaptable into new contexts. Unlike Rome, Open City, Bicycle Thieves has a relatively straightforward narrative with few characters. A father needs work. He finds a job that requires a bicycle. The bicycle gets stolen. He searches for the bike. In desperation, he tries to steal someone else’s bike. These main plot points can be pulled piecemeal into something like a half-hour television script without losing their recognizability. Furthermore, there’s the character of the son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), with his wise-beyond-his-years attitude, coveralls, cropped curls, and gas-attendant job. He is an archetypal character that is easily replicated in the comedic homages The Icicle Thief and Master of None.
Master of None is particularly interesting because it borrows everything but the bicycle. The main character, Dev (Aziz Ansari), has a phone stolen, not a bicycle, but the plot of the episode is still recognizable as Bicycle Thieves because it pulls in other elements. In addition to the basic plot structure of having an object stolen in the street and searching the city for it, “The Thief” has a wise little boy (Mario as the “Bruno” character, played by Nicoló Ambrosio), black-and-white photography, and directly replicates many shots from Bicycle Thieves, such as the one where Ricci and Bruno wallow on a curb.
Bicycle Thieves is a film that’s easy to love. It has a touching story, relatable characters, and a strong visual aesthetic. For all that, though, it endures through countless other films and television shows because its iconography is particularly recognizable. The stolen bike — like a boy with a red balloon or a ballerina with red shoes — is just the right balance of identifiable and unique to make us always associate it with de Sica’s 1948 masterpiece.
Watch Bicycle Thieves at the IU Cinema on May 20 at 4 pm as part of the series Critics’ Pics: Selections from AFI and Sight & Sound.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.