BOLOGNA — "This is not a movie, it's reality..." A filmgoer in Milan wrote those words to director Vittorio De Sica after watching Bicycle Thieves when it was released 71 years ago. I for one had always thought the same: that the 1948 neorealist masterpiece movie was a good representation of reality of how life was back then — neorealism as a mirror of the past that cannot be applied to the future. I was wrong.

A few days ago, I went to the Lumière Cinema in Bologna to watch the film restored by the Film Archive. I went with a friend from school, who arrived with a bright blue bicycle and tied it to a pole. When we left the theater after the movie, the bike was gone. My friend seemed unfazed, telling me that bicycles disappear continuously in the city.

"I'll look for it tomorrow," he said.

I imagined him searching street by street through outlying neighborhoods like the desperate Antonio Ricci does in the film, but then he added: "On the Internet."


Original poster for the movie Bicycle Thieves – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He explained the two options: either post the photo on the Bikewatch.com website and wait for an alert, or go through the used bike announcements and see if someone was already (he thought the term was appropriate) "recycling" it. He knows someone who went to the seller of his own bike with the carabinieri police. The guy defended himself by saying that he had bought the bike from a stranger for 15 euros and got away with a citation. The stories are endless, including the one where a bare-chested 40-year-old got on the bus carrying a bicycle from the city's bike-sharing system that he intended to sell on the other side of town.

I started thinking that in order to understand reality in Italy in 2019, we could simply start with the bicycle thieves, like in 1948. Figures show the consistent occurrence of the phenomenon. The last survey, conducted in 2012, shows there were 320,000 bike thefts that year. Last year there were more than 400,000 for a value of 100 million euros. Half of bike owners had theirs stolen at least once. They became fatalist and disheartened, since most avoid reporting it, thinking police investigations will not help them recover their belonging. A third of the thefts are the work of drug addicts, another third of organizations that carry out mass nocturnal withdrawals with vans, the last third is pure improvisation. As a man in Parabiago told the policemen who arrested him while he was climbing over a fence with somebody else's bike on his shoulder: "Oh well, come on, I screwed up!"

There is a bicycle theft every day and everyone has a story to tell.

I needed to identify the epicenter of this phenomenon and I think I unexpectedly found it in Saronno, a quiet town in Lombardy about 30 kilometers from the border with Switzerland. It has about 40,000 inhabitants, 12% of whom are foreign residents with legal papers, and it is run by the far-right League party after a long period of center-left administration. In Saronno, there is a bicycle theft every day and everyone has a story to tell and a picture of reality (didn't we start off from neorealism?).

Cameras have increased, surveillance groups have been created on Facebook, a proposal has been made to create bike plates, but all in vain: Nothing and no one is spared.

Inevitably there is someone who says: Things have gotten worse with all these migrants. It is true that a 33-year-old Tunisian man was caught loading the dismantled pieces of 30 stolen bikes into a van, to send them off to the port of Genoa and then on to Tunisia. But it is just as true that a group of migrants staying in the parish house of Piazza della Libertà had their own bikes stolen after they'd received them as a gift donation.

The most significant episode took place a month ago, late in the afternoon, next to the sanctuary of the Beata Vergine dei Miracoli. A woman saw two men struggling to break off a cable lock. They were almost done when — as Antonio Ricci did in vain in the De Sica film — the woman shouts: "Stop thief!" This is where the scene changes. The two thieves split, the woman tries to chase one, but is left behind. A young Senegalese man runs after the other, and two Ukrainians eventually catch him.

Looking at the film of reality, it seems that war and theft among poor people, no matter their nationality, have never ceased — and distrust of the justice system continues. The only difference is that today, you might catch your thief on the Internet.

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