Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 drama Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) is regarded by critics as one of the great masterpieces of the Italian neo-realist cinema. The plot is relatively simple: a laborer named Antonio, accompanied by his young son Bruno, search the streets of Rome for Antonio’s stolen bicycle, which he desperately needs to keep his job. To expose an “absence of human solidarity” in a bureaucratic Italian society plagued by unemployment and poverty, the director employs a realist visual style more aligned with documentary than feature filmmaking. With location shooting, long takes, fast black and white film stock, a loosely plotted narrative, and nonprofessional actors, he demonstrates that Italian society and its social institutions—namely, the Catholic Church, police, and trade unions—have no interest in the “common man.”
While The Bicycle Thief is certainly de Sica’s best-known work, it was not his first to examine the social problems of post-war Italy. Two years earlier, he directed the critically acclaimed Sciuscià (Shoeshine), which focuses on the disintegration of a friendship between two Italian youths who fall victim to the state’s juvenile detention system.
De Sica introduces us to his two young protagonists in an opening sequence that is uncharacteristic of Italian neo-realism. Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi) and his best friend Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni) appear riding horses through an open field outside of the city. The scene evokes an exhilarating sense of freedom, in stark contrast to the Roman streets shown next. Here, reality sets in: these spirited street urchins shine shoes, struggling to make enough money to buy a white horse, on which they plan to escape their impoverished lives.
Their aspirations are shattered when Giuseppe’s brother enlists them in a black market scheme. The boys are caught, falsely accused of a crime they did not commit, and sent to a brutal state juvenile detention center. Exposed to the corruption of the adult world, their deep bond is severed, with tragic results.
The theme of lost innocence, in a world in which children are forced to think and act like adults, is a common theme in Italian neo-realist cinema. In Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta (Open City) (1945), little boys engage in a real live war game by tossing bombs off a roof at German soldiers. In The Bicycle Thief, Bruno doesn’t attend school because he must work at a gas station to support his parents and baby sister.
Shoeshine offers an even more pessimistic view. Unlike in Open City and The Bicycle Thief, here the nuclear family is absent (Pasquale is an orphan) or corrupting. Tricked by authorities into committing violence, Giuseppe incurs the wrath of Pasquale, who plants a file in his former friend’s cell. This sets off a series of events (including a prison breakout and a near riot) that are reminiscent of a 1930s Warner Brothers prison drama.
The real oppressors in this film are the wardens of the detention center and the court system, who display a genuine lack of interest in the welfare of their young wards who are treated and tried as adults. (De Sica comically compares the men who run the center to fascists by having one give the notorious Nazi salute.) When both boys go on trial, neither receives an adequate defense: Giuseppe is told by his lawyer to lie and Pasquale’s overworked public defender has no time to review his case.
The quality of the print used by Image Entertainment is above average and contains the entire shower sequence, a portion of which does not appear in most American prints due to brief glimpses of frontal male nudity. The DVD includes no extras, particularly missed in the case of this film, which has remained in the shadows of The Bicycle Thief and had precious little written about it. Ironically, it was Shoeshine‘s Special Academy Award, received in 1947, that spawned the creation of the Best Foreign Language Film, the first of which The Bicycle Thief won two years later.
Shoeshine‘s award citation reads: “The high quality of this motion picture, brought to eloquent life in a country scarred by war, is proof to the world that the creative spirit can triumph over adversity.” While de Sica and his creative team triumphed in bringing this story to the screen, the same can not be said for poor Pasquale and Giuseppe, who never had a chance to overcome the oppressive forces of poverty.