"I have been ruined by lack of money. All my good films, which I financed by myself, made nothing. Only my bad films made money. Money has been my ruin." - Vittorio De Sica
As good as his more well known known neorealist works ("Bicycle Thieves", "Umberto D" etc), Vittorio De Sica's "Shoeshine" traces the lives of two shoeshine boys. Orphans, poor, estranged and struggling to survive, the duo find themselves drifting inexorably toward a life of crime. Much of the film's later half documents the boys' lives within juvenile facilities, where the state's attempts at reformation are shown to have only negative effects. Like many neorealist works, "Shoeshine" was well regarded in the West upon release (nominated for several Oscars), but was condemned by Italian officials for daring to point fingers at the nation's postwar failings.
Taking place a year after the end of WW2, the majority of "Shoeshine" watches as the two boys – Giuseppe and Pasquale – prowl the street's of Rome, hustling cash, shining the shoes of American troops and dreaming of owning a beautiful horse. The horse, symbolic of freedom, self-worth, beauty, upward mobility, hope etc, epitomises the shredded shared aspirations of Italy's underclass. The film then begins to resemble the works of Charles Dickens, with their street urchins, likable ragamuffins and soot smeared daydreamers. Here the "horse" - which Giuseppe and Pasquale buy using blackmail money - is shown to be unattainable precisely UNLESS the boys resort to crime. It's the cruelest poverty trap, the duo arrested the moment they realise their dreams, which echoes earlier scenes in which De Sica has the kids visit a clairvoyant, a sequence which points to a kind of hard, social determinism. The boys aren't just fated to a life of suffering, society wills them into crime.
The film becomes most interesting when the boys enter prison and various "reformation facilities". Loyalties are tested, the kid's are beaten, hearts harden, betrayals are frequent and we're introduced to hordes of other confined children, who seem to be perpetually whimpering in the dark, let out occasionally, if they're lucky, only to meet deeply embarrassed parents. At its best, the film shows how prisons purport to offer reform and redemption but serve only to warp incarcerated individuals, hardening them, coarsening them, making them worse. The film would be deeply influential on Luis Bunuel's "Los Olvidados" (Bunuel cites early De Sica as a big influence), which was released in 1950. De Sica's "Shoeshine" was released in 1946, with Rossellini's similar film, "Germany, Year Zero", released two years later in 1948. Rossellini's masterpiece is arguably better, but wouldn't exist without the groundwork De Sica lays here.
"In handling the camera I feel that I have no peer," Orson Welles once said. "But what De Sica can do, I can't do. I ran his 'Shoeshine' recently and the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life." At the time, many felt this way toward the neorealist movement. It's "authenticity" was new, gritty, these films offered a never-before-seen "heightened reality". But time is rarely kind to films which overtly attempt to "recreate real life". Once the novelty wears off you're often left with something contrived, calculated, "documentarian touches" revealing themselves to be (paradoxically) both sensationalistic and not sensationalistic enough next to whatever is the newest incarnation of "heightened reality". As a mainstream example, it's why Scorsese, son of neorealists, keeps getting more and more ridiculously manic, a kind of pornographic escalation into further and further layers of hyper-realism. Meanwhile, ground-zero reality gets increasingly banal.
So "Shoeshine", like most neorealist works, is odd in that it's now both "not gritty enough" whilst revealing itself to "have never been realistic". It's a weirdness specific to neorealism, a movement which continually, with much futility, tries to capture a "reality" that always seems to exists beyond it. And of course like most neorealist works there is little metaphysical depth here, little of interest beside what we directly see (which is why Italian metaphysicians like Antonioni and Pssolini often feel more modern, more affecting, then the Viscontis, Rossellinis and De Sicas). On the plus side, all these flaws are tempered by De Sica's own particular brand of pathos, which is directly influenced by the poetic realism of the French, specifically Renoir, whom De Sica rightfully admired. And like Renoir, De Sica zeroes in on poverty, hardship, intergenerational estrangement and the sense of general moral decay and vacuity cast by Fascist regimes. In typical Renoir fashion, De Sica also codes class relationships cleanly but subtly, much of the film preoccupied with contrasts in "high" and "low", with characters towering over others, or with strategically placed stairs, top floors, bottom floors, ascents and descents. This up/down dynamic extends to the film's title and the chief occupation of the shoeshine boys, who must kneel submissively at the feet of American soldiers, in a national image of defeat and shame.
8.5/10 – Worth one viewing. See "Germany Year Zero", "The Garden of the Finzi Continis", "Wendy and Lucy", "Land of Plenty", "Frozen River" and "Umberto D".