PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'Shoeshine': A Dickensian Tale

Heralded as a neorealist masterpiece, Shoeshine should be considered more of a precursor to the style in which Vittorio De Sica polished his technique for his later masterpieces.


Director: Vittorio De Sica
Cast: Franco Interlenghi,Rinaldo Smordoni,Annielo Mele,Bruno Ortenzi, Emilio Cigoli
Distributor: Entertainment One
Release date: 2011-05-17

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.