A great film should never become a museum piece, tethered to the time in which it was made. Few come greater than Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 portrait of the cruel city and crueller fate. Now the crown jewel of Italian neorealism is also the jumping-off point for The Bike Thief, a modest but achingly effective British update. Some will see the title alone as heresy, but films are there to inspire — and a classic holds its relevance. The world changes and the world does not, and seven decades after De Sica, lives still hinge on something so simple and fragile as two wheels. Your Deliveroo driver will agree.

Instead of postwar Rome, the stage is modern London. Mostly shooting at night, director Matt Chambers gets the place right twice over. In streetlit panoramas, he captures the British capital’s sheer endlessness. Up close, the film pins down the cheek-by-jowl proximity in which scuffed estates and takeaways are forever just a corner away from handsome townhouses. Such is the city called home by the otherwise unnamed Rider, a Romanian in London employed delivering pizzas on a moped. (He is played by Alec Secareanu, a soulful actor familiar from two films by director Francis Lee, God’s Own Country and Ammonite.)

The bike is the key to it all, of course. The owner of the pizza parlour is also landlord of the cramped flat he shares with his wife Elena (Anamaria Marinca), a cleaner, and their children. Space is tight but life has a rhythm, a rationality. Until — London being London — the moped vanishes. Secareanu stares at the kerb in confusion. Then panic.

As it was with De Sica, the simplicity of the story is at once poetic and deceptive. The rest is not just raw human drama but vast moral complexity. At one point, the Rider is told his only obligation is to look after his family. How noble that sounds. But whoever stole his bike probably believed it too. In a world ever more filled with precarious figures made faceless under crash helmets, this smart and troubling film could hardly feel more urgent.

★★★★☆

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