The affecting Italian neorealist film The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette) is an example of how highly Italians value personal mobility. When the main character’s bicycle is stolen his entire world is shattered and he desperately searches for the thief, for without it he cannot work. His anxiety increases throughout the film culminating in a desperate attempt by him to steal a bicycle himself in front of his son in a scene full of empathy and heartbreak. The protagonist comes full circle in the effort to recover his mobility and provide for his family.
In modern Rome, one can draw certain parallels between the protagonist’s need of a bicycle (the job he has just secured will only keep him if he has a bicycle) and the perceived need of a vehicle in today’s culture. Romans love their cars and regularly try to fit them down barely adequate streets, squeeze into spaces an American would never consider a parking spot, and angrily wave pedestrians out of the way. Although compared to many US cities Rome has an adequate public transit system the desire for the freedom of personal mobility seems to win out. Also visible today is the lengths to which people will go to secure their vehicle against theft, car alarms are a common sound and steering wheel lock bar a common sight. The lure of the open road is a strong pull for Romans although never an open road will be found in Rome. Transport was reaching a critical mass even in the postwar period of the film, one scene shows an overcrowded trolley with men hanging off the sides, and in present day Rome during rush hour or the tourist season a comfortable bus or tram ride will not be found. Yet, in a lecture by Tom Rankin he stated that there are 85 cars for every 100 people in Rome1 so how is it that the public transit system seems to be at a breaking point? We now have a city where most of the people own cars that do not appear to improve their day-to-day lives.
In many ways, comparing the sad, almost hopeful struggle of the family in Ladri di Biciclette to secure work for the husband by trading their only other possession of value (bedding given to them for their wedding) for the bicycle at the pawn shop, to the modern day Romans desire to move about with absolute personal freedom is ridiculous. Yet Italy and Rome have come so far in the last sixty years that the problems of modern day Romans have been reduced to sadness over a missed possible parking space on a sidewalk where they can avoid paying the parc-o-meter. The desperation for survival of 1940’s Rome has morphed into the desperation to keep up with the Joneses of present day; lest your neighbor upstage you by moving from a two wheeled motor vehicle to a four wheeled one before you can.
1 Rankin, Tom. “7 Themes for a Sustainable Rome.” Lecture, University of Oklahoma, Palazzo Cenci, Rome, IT.