Getting there first doesn’t mean getting there best, and despite its revered status as one of the films that started neorealism, Shoeshine doesn’t really do justice to the cinematic style it’s associated with.
Set in war-ravaged Rome, the film opens at a horse track, where two young boys admire the horses with hopeful eyes. Two of their friends: Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi) and Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni) are riding a horse which they plan to buy. The problem is that they’re only shoeshine boys. They barely make enough to eat every month, “Money has no value nowadays” says Giuseppe, before mentioning how the allowance he gives his mother has increased drastically after the war.
From the get-go, director Vittorio De Sica lets us know that we are in a world where standard societal rules don’t apply anymore. The rest of the movie is devoted to stressing how these children were forced by the war to act, if not fully become, adults. What De Sica does so well is maintain his characters’ duality: they know they have to provide for themselves, but they still have childhood longings.
After helping Giuseppe’s con-man brother with a job, they finally get enough money to buy their horse (had the price of horses lowered or had they been saving for years, we never know for sure) but their dream collapses almost immediately, when they’re arrested for being involved in criminal activities. The children are taken to a boys’ prison, while the adults who led them to such trouble roam free in the streets.
Perhaps if the film had culminated there, instead of having this event as its first turning point, Shoeshine would’ve achieved the sublimity of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, which he filmed later. Bicycle Thieves is appreciated for its no frills approach to the decaying state of humankind in the years that followed the war. The main difference between these two films is that while Bicycle Thieves is almost painful to watch in its rawness, Shoeshine over-dramatizes, and even romanticizes poverty—to almost fable-sque proportions.
“The characters and events in this movie are fictitious” warns us a title card just after the opening credits and by the film’s end we never have come to doubt it. This new DVD edition includes a mildly informative audio commentary with author Bert Cardullo who points out the fact that for this film De Sica followed more traditional filmmaking techniques, including the casting of professional actors. Perhaps it’s the leads’ film-ready faces, which make the overall emotional impact less potent. The story is heartbreaking yes, but its punch feels much more manufactured than in consequent neorealist masterpieces. Could it be that maybe the director wasn’t ready to expose Italy for what it had become?
Shoeshine contains moments of utter inhumanity, mostly expressed through the rich dialogues. “Whoever invented the elevator is a genius” says Giuseppe, “Tell me about it, I’ve slept in one for three months” adds Pasquale innocently. It makes sense to think that neorealism after all was still meant to make a profit and who in the world would’ve wanted to see too much reality? Whatever made the director shift from this mindset and led him to explore the use of amateurs in leading roles, is one of cinema’s biggest mysteries and also proved to be a huge artistic blessing.
Shoeshine therefore plays more like a Dickensian tale instead of a crude documentary-like feature. For what it is, it should be praised for the children’s performances. Both lead actors create characters you can identify with and the supporting actors who play the cellmates and prison inmates, create a beautiful synergy with them. You can always point out Giuseppe and Pasquale but you wish you knew why some of the other children are in prison, too.
For its use of drama and artistic qualities, the film was awarded a special recognition from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. A few years later this honorary award would become known as the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and it makes sense that Shoeshine was the first to receive it. The film fits perfectly well within the canon of Oscar winning movies. It has children overcoming obstacles, it’s WWII related, and overall it feels like an extremely safe movie.
In later years the award went to truly groundbreaking cinema, but usually the Academy picks the movie that most fits the Hollywood creation system. If you can imagine the movie in English, then it will win the Foreign Language Oscar.
If anything, Shoeshine should be admired as a time capsule to help us understand De Sica’s evolution as a filmmaker. The film is pure practice; from it, the director must havve understood that you don’t have to deliver a complicated story to deliver a harsh emotional punch (see Umberto D. and Miracle in Milan ). He also must have realized that great actors blend seamlessly with non-professional ones (Sophia Loren in Two Women). If Shoeshine isn’t really astonishing, seeing it at least makes you appreciate the director’s best works even more.