Shoeshine was penned by a whole host of people: Sergio Amidei, Adolfo Franci, Cesare Giulio Viola, and Cesare Zavattini. However, it’s quite easy to focus on Zavattini due to his longtime partnership with De Sica dating back to The Children Are Watching from a few years prior. Their lucrative collaboration would produce a string of well-remembered works, not least among them The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D, and even Sunflower in the 1970s.
Together they created stories out of deceptively simple scenarios that always find a way to be imbued with raw emotional truth. We are quickly reminded of how many of De Sica’s greatest films were pictures of youth. In this one, two shoeshine boys are infatuated with a beautiful horse they wish to buy for their own.
When they return to the city we get an immediate roving sense of the post-war world on the streets, not unlike The Bicycle Thief. Giuseppe and Pasquale feel fully integrated and familiar with their world, chatting up their acquaintances as they work away shining shoes.
We soon come to realize how they are a part of the postwar economy (“Shoeshine Joe!”) and they even manage to unwittingly get themselves into the thriving black marketeering racket. It’s usually people like them who end up paying their dues on the inside in place of others. They aren’t exactly innocent bystanders, but their crime certainly doesn’t fit the punishment.
They end up in a boy’s prison, clamming up to protect a no-good older brother who we never see again. He’s not of primary importance. Instead, we witness how two friends who weather thick and thin together are forced to separate — resigned to separate holding cells.
However, there has to be a moment of reversal where the narrative locks in on a dramatic question ripping the story to its core. This is the mother fleeing for her lover in The Children are Watching Us or the man choosing to steal in The Bicycle Thief. Sure enough, Shoeshine introduces such a moment of its own. Because the one element not in doubt throughout the movie is the camaraderie between these two boys. Until it is…
Giuseppe receives a tearful visit and learns his older brother was taken in; immediately, he knows Pasquale squealed, and regardless, of the circumstances, he feels totally betrayed. He doesn’t realize his buddy has been played for a fool as the policeman tricked him into a speedy confession. But the means make no difference. Now there is an irrevocable wedge between the friends because a sacred vow of silence has been broken. The very bedrock of the friendship has been spurned.
Whether merited or not, one betrayal reaps another in the form of a planted file and the rival factions form around their cellmates only serving to escalate the animosity. There is no other way to settle matters than a bloody fistfight in the shower rooms. But this can never solve the hurt; it only pushes them farther apart.
Still, despite the wave of spite between them, the veil of naivete and a vow to truthfulness is not totally lost on these boys. In the proceeding court case where they are both brought before a judge, the defense attorney looks for a scapegoat — the boy without a family — but his young defendant cannot understand how personal utility (for himself and his brother) trumps telling the truth. It’s a foreign concept to him. Kids are not made for the mercenary games of bargaining in the courtroom. Their moral codes are of a different kind.
Later, during an in-house movie screening, there’s the inevitable escape attempt because it’s not natural for anyone (boys included) to be caged and so a few of them make a unified break for it. It feels reminiscent of some of the old Cagney movies or other prison noir, but of course, it was a contemporary if not a predecessor to some of the greats like Brute Force and White Heat.
However, if you look at the picture in terms of genre conventions, what sets it apart is the youthful perspective because we see something so precious — that of friendship — get crushed as hearts grow cold with bitterness. Again, we find our two boys in compromising positions, their rocky friendship put under one last round of duress.
The ending is nothing short of devastation where all the dreams and innocence of youth are summarily crushed in one tragic act of inhumanity that can never be undone. One can barely imagine the film after “Fin” comes up on the screen because it feels like De Sica’s story is so thoroughly engaged with the present moment and when it dissipates there’s nothing left. All we have to go on are our feelings of anguish for these boys and the broken system that has no capacity to get better any time soon.
I think this part of what Orson Welles meant when he says of Shoeshine, “the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life.” In a deeply profound way, you very rarely consider the tenets of filmmaking at work while watching the film. Perhaps like Chaplin or some of the classical masters, De Sica speaks to us through resounding images we can understand intuitively, suffusing them with the most honest of emotions, and allowing the scenes to wash over us.
Suddenly, time has passed and the full breadth of an emotional arc is realized. You get totally lost in the moment — overtaken by the pure, overwhelming force of cinema. I’m no expert when it comes to describing the main facets of neorealism as embodied by the works of De Sica, Roberto Rosselini, and others. However, beyond any kind of post-war malaise and on-location shooting with untrained actors, it seems like it comes down to this intimate frequency of resonance. We realize that we too share in their story and their experiences by just being human.