Before Vittorio De Sica made his most lasting masterpieces in Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D (the former of which topped the first ever Sight & Sound poll for greatest film of all time), he was still good enough to get the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create an honor for a non-American film. That non-American film, Shoeshine, is one of the very earliest examples of Italian neorealist cinema and, by my account, also one of the best.
Italian neorealist means post-World War II, nonprofessional actors, and poor protagonists caught in economic and moral struggle are a given. What makes Shoeshine so effective is that the main characters are children, one a young teenager, the other a few years younger. Those two boys, Pasquale Maggi (Franco Interlenghi) and Giuseppe Filippucci (Rinaldo Smordoni), respectively, find themselves minor participants in a crime in an effort to buy a horse, but they then find themselves victims of a corrupt, unfair criminal justice and political system. While in jail, the boys are forced to separate and begin to grow distant. On the strengths of the performances all-around and the incredibly realistic dialogue, Shoeshine is a treat to watch unfold, as we see the effects of corruption in the system and adversity can lead to the premature disembodiment of youth.
Shoeshine is a document of its time, but like the best neorealist work, it resonates strongly even today, never hanging on the details of the economy or over-explaining its setting. De Sica made films about Italy for Italian audiences, so he knew his audience would be able to keep up. If he were alive today, he doubtlessly would trust us to be familiar with Italy’s economy after World War II; his lack of exposition is a major part of what makes him such an effective storyteller. We are thrown into life as it was, and while this can be disorienting at first, De Sica has a way of making anyone’s life look interesting, and he gives us precisely as much as we need to keep up and relies on the power of the stories themselves to do the heavy-lifting. Shoeshine is short, clocking in around an hour and a half, so not a frame is wasted; it’s a perfect example of efficient editing and intelligent storytelling. That alone is reason to watch.
What keeps Shoeshine from being recognized on the same level as the greatest works of Antonioni, Rossellini, and De Sica himself is the lack of development of the supporting cast. At first, everyone from the police chief to the guards to the prison staff are introduced as being unique and important, but focus gradually comes off, and the only secondary character who is developed is Giuseppe’s cellmate Arcangeli, as an aggressive, determined, and principled corruptor. Otherwise, the film fails to deliver on this initial promise, introducing other cellmates and making repeated references to the guards but never letting us understand them the way we understand Arcangeli. The focus is firmly on Giuseppe and Pasquale, who are both full characters, complex beyond their years, as the lives it is suggested they have led would make them. We are given an effective drama between them, but for a film that targets corruption, indicting political systems and past generations for ruining our youth, we are not given a full that system. Giuseppe and Pasquale, along with Arcangeli, make a convincing portrait of the condition of Italian youth, but fall short of portraying the destruction of youth compared to what we are promised in the first act.
Shoeshine comes with the same emotional punch as both Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, but it falls short of portraying desperation with the same effect. Too often Giuseppe and Pasquale are passive characters, mostly waiting for something to happen before reacting and becoming devious. Most of their biggest actions are a result of being dragged into situations, which creates a tone less desperate or relatable than De Sica achieved with those later films. In particular, the climax feels forced and a bit rushed, preventing the audience from fully tapping into the minds and feelings of the youth in those moments. Still, the ending more makes up for it, setting the blueprint for De Sica’s hard hitting, emotional finales that would come later.