A story of lost innocence in the rubble of post-World War II Rome, Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine isn’t short on heartbreaking moments, but one of the most heartbreaking doesn’t directly involve tragedy at all. Sitting in a courtroom late in the film, Rinaldo Smordoni, one of the two young shoeshine boys at the center of the film, looks away from his trial to a group of children watching it progress. Spotting a girl he’s sweet on, he shoots her a smile, and for just a moment, he looks like any untroubled kid his age. Then the moment passes, and the system resumes its task of grinding him down.
Released in 1946, Shoeshine was one of the first films from the school of Italian neo-realism to attract broad international attention, even earning an honorary Oscar before the Academy created a category to honor foreign-language films. Smart choice: Shoeshine remains a powerfully affecting film that examines a Rome still crawling out from the wreckage of war, and it’s a stunning example of the emotional power of the close-to-the-gravel neo-realistic style. In later efforts like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., De Sica refined his style a bit, leaning on sentiment less frequently and taking a slightly less direct route to the wrenching emotions he stirs here. But the approach is already in place. De Sica goes to the parts of Rome ignored by newsreel footage and postcards alike, turning his attention to those pulled along by the tides of history and institutional callousness.
A young Franco Interlenghi—who went on to be a popular leading man in Italian films, and remains active today—co-stars alongside Smordoni. Together, they shine shoes for the American “Joes” stationed in Rome and dream of buying a horse. After scraping together enough money to make the purchase, they ride the horse through the streets, to the admiration of other children, but they only have a moment to enjoy their triumph. Having unwittingly earned the last lira they needed by participating in a crime, they’re arrested, thrown in with other juvenile offenders, and tried.
De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini—his collaborator here and on other films—drew inspiration from the squalor and devastation around them, and their work doubles as a time capsule for a tumultuous era. But their films’ feel for their characters’ humanity is what makes them timeless. Like the heroes of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., Shoeshine’s protagonists want what most—or most who could afford to go to the movies—take for granted. De Sica’s Rome is filled with, as one character puts it, “children who are all alone.” But that isn’t entirely accurate: Even after banding together to find happiness, its heroes pay a price. They’re stand-ins for the usually faceless masses, but the intensity of the film’s focus makes them much more than that, holding their faces in close-up and never looking away as the world tries to break their spirit.
Key features: An informative commentary from film scholar Bert Cardullo.