Shoeshine opens with a sense of freedom and hope, as two boys, Pasquale and Giuseppe (Franco Interlenghi and Rinaldo Smordoni respectively) thunder down a country path astride a beautiful horse. It is their only real joy in life, and simply hiring the horse out from its owner every now and then is not enough for them; they want to own him so they can ride him whenever they want to. In the meantime, they are both shoeshine boys, working on the streets of Rome shining the shoes of American GIs for a pittance. One day, Giuseppe’s older brother asks them to sell some stolen blankets to a lady, which they realise too late is a setup for a robbery. The lady manages to identify the boys and they are then imprisoned in a juvenile prison, where they are kept in separate cells, ensuring that their friendship will deteriorates over time. The end of Shoeshine contains no hope and no freedom, just despair, in stark contrast to even the muted hope found at the close of Vittorio De Sica’s other masterworks Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D.
It is a film that shows us how the state system in postwar Italy failed people grossly. It shows us how, in the absence of a serious consideration for human values, two young boys are forced apart and, in the race to survive, become bitter enemies, manipulated by older boys in the system and by the carrot-and-stick methods of the prison authorities. The lack of a proper system turns good-natured children into petty criminals, victims not just of the state but also the greedy needs of the black marketeer whose robbery implicated the boys in the first place. In one particularly depressing sequence, a scene of the boys sitting down to eat their prison meal – little more than stale bread and gruel – is followed by a scene of the black marketeer eating luxuriously amongst friends in a beautiful restaurant.
There is a wealth of detail in the world Vittorio De Sica depicts here, as there always is in his films. There are subtle ones, such as the ceaseless marching of the prison director’s walk through an inspection of his realm which ends in a trip to the kitchen wherein the cook instinctively starts a Fascist salute, even though Mussolini was long dead at this point. There are more obvious sections too, such as the scene where the prison authorities torture Giuseppe in front of Pasquale to make one or the other talk, except in reality Giuseppe is simply taken to another room whilst another boy simply pretends to cry from behind a door as if he’s being whipped. This is a direct reference to the famous torture scene in Rome, Open City, except the difference is that in Roberto Rossellini’s film, no one talks; faced with a corrupt system at such a young age our protagonists here in Shoeshine break apart, whereas in Rossellini’s film they retain their moral strength.
Then are the grander ideas – the horse is, for the boys, a symbol of an upward economic shift. By owning him, their status as simple shoeshine boys is forgiven, they are now to be looked up to, as revealed in the scene where they ride the horse through the centre of Rome looking proud and ecstatic, whilst their fellow shoeshine boys look up in bewilderment. But they used some of the robbery money to buy the horse, and the law catches up with them. They are tossed downwards into a sea of criminals, and the resulting alienation and hopelessness they are faced with is heartbreaking to watch.
Ultimately, this is a superb film, one of De Sica’s best. I would argue it is even better than Bicycle Thieves, but this is maybe just a reaction to the fact that the latter film is continually praised (deservedly so) whilst Shoeshine is routinely ignored. Any cinema fan should aim to adjust that balance and watch Shoeshine.