A bishop and a priest are chauffeured to the rural home of two peasant sisters. They recount the story of an unnamed man who has made a deathbed confession of burying a treasure chest along with a murdered victim by a tree in the middle of their property. The confessor has bequeathed the hidden bounty to the landowners, in exchange for 500 masses to be held in his memory. It is a fantastic tale that is made plausible by the seeming benevolence of the two clergymen. But these men are not emissaries from the Catholic Church. An earlier scene shows the middle-aged Augusto (Broderick Crawford) and the younger Carlo (Richard Basehart) (who goes by the nickname Picasso) preparing for the confidence game, as the charismatic Roberto (Franco Fabrizi) switches license plates. The unsuspecting sisters have just surrendered their life savings to a band of career criminals. And so the ritual of their existence is revealed: posing as housing officials, selling worthless watches, bartering inexpensive coats for money and a full tank of gasoline. Augusto has grown weary of his profession, but has never known any other life. One day, he encounters his daughter, Patrizia (Lorella De Luca) on her way home from school. She wants to become a teacher, but can neither afford the tuition, nor pay the deposit required to earn a decent wage to fund her studies. Augusto is clearly devoted to her, but can only make empty promises of support. While spending the afternoon with Patrizia at a movie theater, he is recognized by one of his nameless victims, and is promptly sent to jail. Separated from his daughter, he returns to the familiarity of his disreputable trade.
The second film in Federico Fellini’s trilogy of loneliness, Il Bidone is a poignant and heartbreaking portrait of an aging man’s redemption from a life of crime and deception. Thematically similar to the subsequent film of the trilogy, La Strada, Fellini portrays Augusto’s internal conflict through separate characters: the idealistic Carlo who aspires to make an honest living as an artist, and the hedonistic Roberto, who searches for opportunities to be included in every deceptive scheme. As in La Dolce Vita, Fellini uses the recurrent imagery of elevation to symbolize the soul torn between personal conscience and decadent materialism: Carlo calls his devoted wife, Iris (Giulietta Masina), who waves back to him from their upper floor apartment; Augusto, Carlo, and Iris ascend the stairs to attend a New Year’s Eve party organized by a career criminal who has amassed his fortune from the art of the swindle; an injured Augusto attempts to scale the side of a hill. Inevitably, it is Augusto’s love for his daughter that paradoxically condemns and redeems him. Il Bidone is a haunting examination of a misguided existence, a profoundly moving testament of the innate goodness of the human soul.
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