In Bicycle Thief, a worker whose livelihood depends on his bicycle finds that it has been stolen, and spends a heartbreaking day with his young adoring son searching for it in the streets of Rome. The film represents a genre of Italian cinema known as neo-realism, an enormously influential style in which films were shot on location, outdoors, and with available light. Filmmakers such as De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Giuseppe De Santis, and Luchino Visconti often used nonprofessional actors in their stories about common people adjusting to the brutal conditions of a society humbled and impoverished by war.
De Sica, an actor, directed his first film in 1939, but it was not until he made his postwar neo-realist masterworks, Shoeshine, Bicycle Thief, and Umberto D, in particular, that he became internationally celebrated. In spite of its having initially been censored in the United States, Bicycle Thief was so well received in America that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored it with a special award two years before the Oscar for the best foreign-language film was inaugurated.