The devastation that the Second World War had on Italy would have a profound effect on how Italian filmmakers would come to make films in the immediate post-war years. Due to the destruction of the Cinecittà studios, directors were forced out onto the streets to make their films, making use of limited resources, non-professional actors, borrowed film stock and rationed electricity. Taking their lead from Roberto Rossellini’s highly influential Rome, Open City (1945), other directors like Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti would contribute to a style that would become known as neorealism. It was in such an environment that the unlikely figure of Vittorio de Sica, a handsome matinee movie idol actor from the 1930’s would, working with scripts by the incomparable Caesare Zavattini, come to make classic films like Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miracle In Milan (1951) and Umberto D (1952), and in the process become one of the major figures of the Italian neorealist movement.
Making Shoeshine in 1946, De Sica was one of the first directors to make films amidst the ruins of post-war Italy, and the situation looks particularly grim for the inhabitants of Rome. The streets are full of American GI’s, and it is through these troops that the people try to improve their situation, dealing in black market goods obtained from the soldiers through favours or crime. Many young boys - a large number of them homeless and orphans on account of the war – also have to fend for themselves on the streets, likewise making a living off the soldiers by cleaning shoes on shoeshine stands along the Via Veneto. Two of these shoeshine boys Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni) and Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi) have greater ambitions and dreams of escape from the drudgery of their lives, saving up the money they earn to go horse-riding in the park and eventually buying a horse of their own. Their brief moment of glory, riding down the streets of Rome on their horse, is however short-lived. Helping out Giuseppe’s brother in a crime scam on a fortune teller, the boys find themselves in trouble, arrested by the police and locked up in a juvenile prison.
While they certainly depict the harsh realities of post-war life in Italy, Vittorio de Sica’s films do tend to lack the harsh, gritty edge of other neorealist films. Like the films that would follow it, Shoeshine makes very clear the dire circumstances of the majority of the population, struggling to keep a job and find a place to live, and the difficulty of doing this within the law. Owing more to the French poetic realist cinema however, De Sica’s films have a wider view of the human condition than just being about enduring misery and his characters always maintain the ideal of keeping hopes and dreams alive – an outlook that often gives his films an almost transcendental and surreal aspect not a million miles away from Jean Vigo (Zéro de Conduite comes particularly to mind while watching this film). This may seem to give the films a softer edge, but in reality the gulf between the dreams of the characters and their impoverished circumstances only makes their situation all the more harrowing.
With the two young boys confined to separate cells in a brutal and over-full prison institution where they have to endure deprivation and suffer from misunderstandings, dirty tricks by the warders and rivalries from older boys, Shoeshine becomes almost Dickensian in its treatment. Like Dickens however, De Sica uses the conventions of dramatic device and characterisation to underline all the more strongly the realities and injustices of a social system that is overworked and incapable of serving the best interests of its people. And it is here that the neorealist elements come into play with ever greater effect, using real people and filming them in real locations. There are no actors among the boys here – De Sica went out onto the streets looking for them and the deprivations they have endured during the war years in their real lives can be seen in their malnourished, skin and bone bodies, making every further blow and knock they receive seem like a harsh and unjust indictment that prevents them from achieving their dream of riding away on their white horse.
As wonderfully as all this is constructed and depicted on the screen - meticulously paced by De Sica with scenes and symbolism calculated to achieve maximum effect - some viewers may be surprised that Shoeshine lacks any polemic or sense of moral outrage, blaming no-one for the terrible situation the boys find themselves in. They are victims of post-war society, but so is everyone else – Giuseppe’s brother Attilio who is driven to crime by the war, the fortune-teller who is trying to make a living, the police just doing their job under difficult circumstances, even the warders in the prison, who are driven to stealing from food packages to feed themselves and no doubt look after their own families. Even Pasquale comes to accept his imprisonment as at least allowing him to have a bed for the night and food to eat – more than he could count on in the outside world, where he slept in an elevator. The lack of social criticism and this even-handedness in finding good in every person and bad situation can be rather unrealistic and unchallenging, but the same could also be said of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. For some it may lessen the impact of those films, but on the other hand, it takes them beyond their post-war origins, allowing them to stand as symbols of human endurance, coping with adversity and dreaming of improving their one’s situation through whatever means necessary.
Shoeshine is released in the UK by Eureka under their Masters of Cinema imprint. The DVD is in PAL format and, contrary to the Region 2 notice on the cover of my copy, is actually region-free.
Shoeshine has been magnificently restored here for this release. I’ve seen a number of battered clips of the film in various documentaries on Italian realism, and the print here consequently seems almost incredible. There is scarcely a mark on the print, although one or two brief sections of the film that were once in particularly bad condition retain a few of those troublesome elements, but these are rare and only serve to demonstrate just how much work must have been put into the restoration. Grain is evident occasionally, but far less than one would expect for a film this old. There is a wonderful clarity throughout, and scarcely any light flicker in a wonderfully stable progressive transfer. The black and white tones are reasonably good, allowing detail to be seen, but the print is strongly contrasted obscuring some of the finer shadow detail. Some brightening of the image appears to have been applied, which tends to wash out the whites slightly and flatten out blacks and shadows, giving the film a greyish tone without revealing any more detail.
Some background analogue hiss and crackle remains on the soundtrack presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, but the quality is still reasonably good. Dialogue is clear, if a little harsh during louder exclamations, but well toned and accurate.
Optional English subtitles are provided in a clear, readable white font that is well-placed and sized and never distracting. It does a fine job of translating as much of the dialogue as possible.
Criterion’s use of dull, dry, self-important academic lectures as commentary tracks have unfortunately led many viewers to feel short-changed if a classic film is not deemed worthy of one. Masters of Cinema are therefore almost obliged to include a commentary even if one is not, as in this case, really necessary. The full-length commentary provided by Bert Cardullo is therefore dutifully provided and should meet those requirements, fully exploring the film in a dull academic analysis that takes all the joy and wonder out of it, looking at the angles, the camera shots, explaining what the characters are doing and thinking, how the camera picks out and emphasises the desolation. There are some interesting observations among much stating of the obvious, but I think you would gain more by working it out for yourself – Shoeshine is not a difficult film to follow. A good essay or documentary can impart the information and ideas about the film in a much more concise and accessible manner, and indeed Cardullo’s essay in the accompanying booklet is much more interesting and speculative than the straightforward narrative lecture provided in his commentary.
Through Children’s Eyes: De Sica and Shoeshine (25:27)
Much more interesting are the thoughts of friends and family of De Sica, and Franco Interlenghi, all contributing to an examination of the impact of Shoeshine in Italian and worldwide cinema, as well as the dispute over the authorship of the work.
Ragazzi (The Boys) (21:22)
Equally of interest is an interview 60 years later with the two boys in the film, Franco Interlenghi and Rinaldo Smordoni, who provide fascinating anecdotes about the casting of the film, working with De Sica, and their subsequent fame and careers.
Neorealist Cinema (8:20)
Gianpiero Brunetta provides a simple definition of the back to basics approach of the Italian neorealism, without going into a great deal of detail on the films or their impact, but gets to the point of where it came from and what it represents.
The accompanying booklet contains a good range of thoughts and ideas on the film with essays by Bert Cardullo, James Agee, Pauline Kael and Vittorio De Sica himself.
Shoeshine is another fine and worthy release from Eureka and Masters of Cinema, and another masterful film from director Vittorio De Sica and screenwriter Caesare Zavattini that must be considered alongside their finest works, coming from the same immediate post-war period as their classics Bicycle Thieves, Miracle In Milan and Umberto D. The film’s qualities are evident in its neorealist treatment, its use of non-professional actors and desolate post-war locations - but De Sica and Zavattini’s customary sensibility and humanist outlook towards their characters shows them constantly striving to rise above their circumstances, giving Shoeshine a modern relevance beyond the historical and technical confines of Italian neorealism.
The Masters of Cinema edition is typically fine, with a wonderfully restored print of the film and a strong selection of extra features, commentary, interviews and essays that provide the film with good contextual and background information.