Grade: AShoeshine (1946)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Stars: Franco Interlenghi, Rinaldo Smordoni

Release Company: Image Entertainment

MPAA Rating: NR

Italian Neo-Realism

De Sica: Shoeshine


Frequently referenced excerpts and critics' polls proclaiming The Bicycle Thief (1948) one of the finest films ever have brought fame to Italian Neo-realist Vittorio De Sica, but he also deservedly won an honorary Academy Award for SciusciÓ (Shoeshine) two years after its 1946 release. As with all post war Italian neo-realism, an air of tragedy looms over the tightly constructed black and white drama, and expectations for eventual heartbreak are exceeded. It's easy to see why Luis Bu˝uel cites De Sica's earlier film as inspiration for his devastating portrait of Mexico City slum life in Los Olvidados.

Shoeshine begins cheerfully enough, with a group of shoeshine boys watching close friends Pasquale Maggi (Franco Interlenghi) and Giuseppe Filippucci (Rinaldo Smordoni) run horses at a local track. In spite of the daily grind of their poverty stricken existence, the two inseparable shoeshine boys share a dream of owning a horse, and they pool their money to save for it. Giuseppe looks up to the older Pasquale, orphaned during the war and now living with Giuseppe after being prevented from sleeping in an elevator.

The two boys' basic innocence is forever lost when they meet Giuseppe's much older brother Attilio clandestinely by the Tiber River and inadvertently get involved with a black market scheme to shake down a fortune teller. Not surprisingly, this leads to their arrest and imprisonment with other assorted juveniles that range from convicted armed robbers to pitiful abandoned orphans. Their friendship and conflicting loyalties are tested, forming the crux the problem that leads inevitably to the contrived but artistically satisfying denouement.

As in Bu˝uel's cinematic exploration of slum life, Shoeshine's tragedy evolves from the overall environment and system as much as it does from the individual choices the boys make. Doing the "right thing" in post war Italy doesn't necessarily guarantee success, yet following the accepted norms of the impoverished post war culture leads to inevitable doom. How can you figure out the correct course to take when all roads lead to a broken down Roman system where no one comes out unsullied? A master at portraying stark realities of poverty while retaining glimmers of hope and humanity, De Sica constructs a poignant yet unsentimental film that compels audiences to weep openly by the end. As Pauline Kael describes,

"It is one of those rare works of art which seem to emerge from the welter of human experience without smoothing away the raw edges, or losing what most movies lose--the sense of confusion and accident in human affairs."
The two main child actors give unbalanced performances with Franco Interlenghi effectively easing into the role of the more mature and sympathetic Pasquale while the younger Rinaldo Smordoni amateurishly hams up his role excessively, making his irritating character far less believable. Using neophytes is prototypical Italian neo-realism, and De Sica works well with the ensemble cast of children; however, the film would increase its potency with a more natural acting young Giuseppe. This is the first role for both main child actors, and based on the performances it comes as no surprise that Smordoni only had two more projects before his film career ended while Interlenghi has gone on to star in 75 films in his ongoing career.

Despite the economic constraints, the cinematography is first rate and the Image Entertainment DVD preserves the images clearly along with improved subtitles that are easily read, making Shoeshine a welcome companion piece to The Bicycle Thief for anyone collecting the most representative neo-realist films. It's another influential De Sica classic with imagery that plays like the lyrical poetry of Baudelaire and shoots for the heart. But if your looking for typical American mainstream films with "feel good" messages and neatly tied up conclusions, you'll need to seek solace elsewhere.
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