Post war Italian cinema fascinates me, mostly because almost every film was made in a world both vibrant and alive with history and absolutely dirt poor. It’s a really interesting dichotomy that, even when it’s not addressed explicitly, colors nearly every scene. At the heart of almost every Italian film made from the end of the World War II to the mid-50s is this motif of lost potential and sadness.
Vittorio de Sica is one of the filmmakers that most tried to bring these conceits to the forefront while telling his stories. His second film, Shoeshine (available on Amazon Prime!), is quite an example of it.
The story follows two boys. One is an orphan. The other has a mother, but little structure because of the abject poverty that permeates the family’s existence. They are shoeshine boys, making lira from American soldiers while helping some local mafia types (one of whom is a brother to one of the boys) sell stolen goods, all in an effort to buy a horse (which they manage to do). They sell to an old lady in an apartment, and the hoods come in, pretending to be police officers, and rob her blind. She later recognizes the two boys on the street. Convinced that they were part of the plot (which they weren’t), she has them arrested and they go to an overcrowded juvenile prison, packed with other boys ranging from about 6 to 16.
The rest of the story is the destruction of the friendship and any sense of goodwill between the two. There’s no conspiracy by the other boys to break them apart, just one effort by the guards to extract information about the robbery. The older boy gives up some names, the actual robbers are arrested, and the other boy is accused of spilling the information. His family hates him for it, despite not having done it. He lashes out and starts a fight. There’s an escape on movie night. The boy who did the telling is left behind, offers to help find the one who escaped. The actions all lead to the smaller boy dying, a death caused almost entirely by the other.
Why is this compelling? It’s sad, really sad. It’s compelling because the boys are very clearly and believably drawn through writing and performance. The environment where they live feels real in very painful ways. The movie was released in 1946. There’s a scene where the boys watch a newsreel that includes footage of the ongoing war in the Pacific. Italy has been decimated by the war and hasn’t even really begun to rebuild. The completely destruction of two boys, smart enough to save tens of thousands of lira for a horse, is tragic. There’s no one individual really at fault (a product of de Sica’s real life socialist ideals), leaving the boys without any place to turn, creating a permanent downward spiral that will always lead to tragedy.
It’s not de Sica’s best film (I still think that’s Umberto D and most consider it to be Bicycle Thieves), but it’s still very good and very much worth the time.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 3.5/4