1948, Italy, directed by Vittorio De Sica (original title: Ladri di biciclette)
Probably the best known of all Italian neo-realist films, Bicycle Thieves (which was inexplicably translated as Bicycle Thief in the US for many years, undercutting one of the film's key points) has the simplicity of a myth: a man who requires a bicycle for his work has that bicycle stolen from him, leading to a downward spiral as he attempts to recover his stolen property. As Michelangelo Antonioni would later say, the man's importance resides exclusively in the fact that his bicycle has been stolen - there's no sustained attempt to explore his state of mind - but that simple fact is of enormous import in a society trying to recover from the wartime period, and scarred by terrible unemployment.
Simply getting the simplest of jobs in post-war Italy seems a tremendous achievement, one that brings with it the sense of restored personal dignity, and it's this which makes the otherwise unremarkable theft seem so overwhelming. The man and his family have had to sacrifice almost everything to get to that point, including their bedsheets - in a mesmerizing sequence set in a vast pawnbroker's enterprise - and the almost immediate disruption of the man's tentative dreams leads him to acts of increasing desperation, the loss of the very dignity so recently restored. The institutions of Italian life, seen here particularly in the form of the church and the police, do nothing to assist this man in his quest, and indeed sometimes seem actively to place further barriers in his way, concerned ultimately with their own well-being rather than that of individual members of society.
Beyond the focus on one individual struggle, the film is also a richly detailed portrait of Roman streets in the mid-1940's, with De Sica's camera taking in rowdy street scenes in popular neighborhoods, markets that look more third world than first, and the realities of the cheaply-built apartments that infested the suburbs just after the war (locations that would prove fertile for other filmmakers too). There's nothing of the hand-held style that functions as a marker for "realism" in more recent work, though: De Sica is a skilled professional, making artful use of fluid tracking shots and lighting in keeping with his professional origins in the studio system, however different and striking his subject matter.