by Richard Finch
We are the people who, in pursuit of our passions, abandon our children to fend for themselves. And our children are alone. All alone.
In the 1940s Vittorio de Sica directed three of the best and most moving films about children ever made—The Children Are Watching Us (1942), Shoeshine (1946), and Bicycle Thieves (1948). In each of these films, children find themselves in a world where the behavior of adults makes little sense to them, where they are powerless to control their own lives, and where they are unable to protect themselves from disappointment and hurt. It’s a sad, mystifying world for children, de Sica seems to be saying, and we adults are too self involved to feel their pain and confusion and help them through it.
In Shoeshine two boys, Pasquale and Giuseppe, live in poverty just after the end of the Second World War in Italy, shining shoes for American servicemen to finance their dream, to own a horse. They’ve been making payments on the horse for a while but can’t claim him until they make one large final payment. When Giuseppe’s older brother offers them a way to make part of the money they need for that payment, they jump at the opportunity, even though it involves doing something shady, delivering stolen American blankets to an elderly fortune teller for resale on the black market. While at the apartment, Giuseppe’s brother shows up with two men who identify themselves as policemen. The boys appear to have been set up as pawns in a sting operation but are lucky to escape and are able to keep all the money from the transaction as well, enough to make the final payment on their horse.
The boys are so ecstatic that they spend the night in the stable with their horse, only to find the next day that their good fortune has turned sour. Picked up by the police, they are accused of being accomplices in the robbery of the fortune teller, for the two men were not policemen at all. The most damning evidence against them is that large sum of money they used to make the final payment on the horse. The boys cannot explain where they got the money without implicating Giuseppe’s brother, and their sense of honor won’t let them do this. Unable to convince the police that they had no prior knowledge of the robbery, Pasquale and Giuseppe are sent to a juvenile prison to await trial.
Only twenty minutes into the movie the circumstantial trap the two boys find themselves in has already snapped shut, and from there things only go downhill. Separated at the detention center, the boys find their friendship and loyalty to each other constantly challenged—by their cellmates, by manipulative prison officials who try to play one boy against the other, and most of all by the souldestroying machinery of the justice and penal system. The film blends elements of a Warners style prison movie of the 1930s with a Kafkaesque atmosphere in which the boys are caught up in institutional machinery beyond anyone’s comprehension or control.
The prison is a hellish place plagued by overcrowding, bad food, bullying inmates, and corrupt guards. Any of the prison staff with good intentions have long ago given up hope of improving conditions. At every turn the boys are duped—by their adult criminal confederates, their cellmates, the prison officials, even their lawyers. Worst of all, the degradation Pasquale and Giuseppe suffer is not the result of intentional malice, but simply the outcome of neglect, indifference, and the selfconcerned attitude of the adults in charge of them. To call these boys helpless victims of circumstance would be putting it too mildly.
Throughout it all, the horse the boys love—the horse is the first thing we see in the film and the last—remains a symbol of their hope. Their hope for freedom, for a connection to the natural world which the grim conditions of their urban environment deny them, for the affection the two boys— Giuseppe, the son of impoverished war refugees, and the orphaned and homeless Pasquale— experience only from each other. When the boys are separated from their horse and from each other, they are set adrift and become prey to all the worst personal and social evils that come their way.
Shoeshine isn’t as well remembered today as other films of the postwar Italian neorealist movement, in part perhaps because it has never received a deluxe home video release by a company like Criterion (although it has been available since 2011 on Region 1 DVD from an obscure releasing company, International Classic Films) and is revived less often than better known neorealist films. Yet it has made a strong impression on some very knowledgeable people. Martin Scorsese admired de Sica’s empathy with his child characters: “There are no barriers at all between de Sica and these children whose tragic lives he understood perfectly.” Orson Welles once called it the best movie he had ever seen and praised its invisible technique, remarkable praise indeed from a director of such highly visible technique. Welles was certainly justified, though, to recognize that de Sica was too savvy to allow a showy style to distract from the highly charged emotions of the story or the truth in the performances of his child actors.
In 1948 Shoeshine became the first film ever to receive a special award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as the best foreign language film of the year. (This didn’t become a competitive category until the 1956 awards year.) The Academy’s citation stated that it was chosen because “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.” This seems an unintentionally ironic way to put it, in view of the way the bleak conditions in postwar Italy are mirrored by the film’s unflinchingly bleak outlook. Not only do Pasquale and Giuseppe not triumph over adversity, but on the contrary are thoroughly crushed by it.