One of the most plangent and revelatory works of neorealism, Shoeshine is one of Vittorio De Sica’s great tributes to the Italian children who were dispossessed and dislocated by the ravages of World War II. The screenplay revolves around two boys, Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi) and Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni) who spend their days wandering the Via Veneto. Both of them are somewhat dissociated from their families, and don’t have much in the way of a regular home, seeking subsistence instead from the residues of the American war effort. The entire story is set in place by the sale of two American blankets, and hinges around a fortune teller who turns out to be particularly unforgiving to the two boys, who somewhat unwittingly find themselves coerced into an ad hoc criminal scheme. There’s no room for the lost generation of children in this fortune teller’s vision of the future, leaving it to De Sica, and to the movie as a whole, to raise the question: “Don’t kids have a future too?”
Having being apprehended for their part in the crime, Pasquale and Giuseppe are sent to a reformatory school for boys, where they are housed in separate cells. Even though they see each other during communal activities, the separation is agonising to them, since they are the only stable presence in each other’s lives. Here we see one of the beautiful childhood friendships that drove neorealism, and De Sica’s consummate gift for directing children as well. Pasquale and Giuseppe are so adult in some ways and so innocent in others – they are little adults until the tears start to well up in their eyes. Their innocence imparts certain strands of the film with the fairytale quality that would blossom in De Sica’s work from Miracle in Milan onwards, while the adult world seems hammy, crude and contrived by comparison, especially when the two boys are put on trial by the impersonal and inelegant legal machine.
All these tendencies converge around the central project of Shoeshine – namely, to imagine an institution commensurate to the wandering children of neorealist cinema (and, perhaps, to neorealist wandering more generally). That makes for a somewhat uncharacteristic neorealist film insofar as the majority of the action takes place in a confined space, on a soundstage, rather than being shot on location on city streets or in otherworldly rural regions. Yet the dynamism of neorealism remains in the way that De Sica progressively morphs the reformatory school in a succession of quite different institutions. First, it seems like a prison, and so situates us in the lineage of prison films. Then, at its most extreme, it echoes the concentration camps of World War II. At other times, it’s closer to a school or an academy.
Yet while the reformatory institution partakes of school, prison and concentration camp, it doesn’t quite conform to any of them. Only in the final scene, when the adult supervisors show the boys a film of the war effort (for the film is set in the later years of World War II) does De Sica reveal that cinema itself is the only institution that can adequately express and assuage the concerns of this lost generation. Accordingly, the boys discover a kind of collective apotheosis watching the film that both resigns them to and permits them to escape the reformatory institution. For a brief beat, the flickers on the screen take them beyond the stagebound set and into the world of neorealist immanence, just as one of the sickest children in the institution is temporarily distracted from his fatal hacking cough by the contagious laughter of the crowd as a whole. However, the cinema also provides the necessary distraction for Pasquale to effect his escape through one of the upstairs windows, before he is joined, later on, back in the natural world, by Giuseppe, with heartbreakingly tragic results.
While cinema may displace the youth institutions of the pre-war era, it is neither as stable nor as tangible as them. So deeply do the boys lean into the world of the war film, and so thoroughly does the war film pervade the institution, that the two finally converge entirely in a volatile conflagration when the celluloid is accidentally set alight. All the neorealist energies of Shoeshine converge around this moment, and are both extinguished and further enflamed by them. The film itself seems to burn up in an instant, even as it provides the light for future neorealist efforts to follow in its footsteps. Neorealism here subsists upon a celluloid revelation that provide succour that is both evanescent and preserved forever – less in a testimony to the fact of it happening, however, than to the promise that it can happen again.