Tuesday, June 30, 2009

DVD Views: Shoeshine (1946)

Shoeshine (1946) ****
Directed By:
Vittorio De Sica.
Written By: Sergio Amidei & Adolfo Franci & Cesare Giulio Viola & Cesare Zavattini.
Starring: Franco Interlenghi (Pasquale Maggi), Rinaldo Smordoni (Giuseppe Filippucci), Annielo Mele (Raffaele), Bruno Ortenzi (Arcangeli), Emilio Cigoli (Staffera).

Like the best of his films, Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine tells an incredibly simple story with powerful emotions at its core. The story is not complicated, the characters not difficult to read, yet the emotional power the film has over its audience is stunning. Like he would later do in The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D., De Sica’s film is a neo-realist classic in the best sense.

It is post war Italy, and Pasquale and Giuseppe are two poor boys in Rome, who no longer attend school, but work as shoeshine boys, and doing whatever other odd jobs they can find. Pasquale’s family is dead, and he stays with Giuseppe, whose family is poor and needs him to earn money, because no one else in the family can. Theirs is a hard life, and the only joy they take in it is by going to the stables and riding a horse they have their heart set on buying. They do not really need to own the horse, but in a sense they do. It’s their dream, and without it, they may cease to be able to continue on.

Giuseppe’s brother comes to them one day with a job. Take two American army blankets to an old fortune teller who will pay good money for them. They do this, and they’ll make 500 lire, which they really need since they are only 3000 lire short of buying the horse. They agree to the job, but it doesn’t go quite how they think it will. After they sell the blankets, Giuseppe’s brother and some friends arrive posing as police, and rob the woman blind. Pasquale and Giuseppe get a bonus for not saying anything – enough to buy the horse, which they ride through town and feel like kings for a day.

But the fortune teller is able to tell the police who the kids who sold her the blanket were. They are arrested and thrown into a juvenile jail, which they are told they will stay in until they give up their adult accomplices. They steadfastly refuse to say anything, but then the guards play a trick on Pasquale, pretending to beat Giuseppe with a belt, until Pasquale confesses to get them to stop hurting his friend. When Giuseppe finds out, he feels like Pasquale has betrayed him and his family, and the former best friends become enemies.

De Sica was one of the founding members of Italy’s neo-realist movement – a style which can still be seen today in the films of the Dardenne brothers and the great Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. At the time, there was very little money to make films in Italy, so directors like De Sica made films on the streets, instead of in studios, and used non-professional actors, to save on money. The result were films like Shoeshine that have a simple power to them, because they seem so real. Unlike the German filmmakers at the time, who seemed to stick their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge their countries sins (something that to a certain extent is just now being corrected), the Italian masters wanted to show their country, warts and all. De Sica’s later film, Umberto D, led to a reformation of pensions for civil servants, even while the Minister of Culture decried the film saying things were not quite that bleak.

In Shoeshine, De Sica has progressed from his earlier films – like the little seen The Children Are Watching Us – to make a genuinely great film about post war Italy. His affinity with children would remain throughout his career, and his ability to drawn natural performances from them remains unrivaled. Perhaps the kids in this movie were so natural because the reality of their lives wasn’t so different from that being portrayed on screen. But whatever the reason, Shoeshine remains a great film – a film that draws us in to a world full of children who are forced to grow up too fast, who stubbornly hold onto to childish dreams, because really, that’s all they have. Reality has encroached their lives far too early.

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