Judge Russell Engebretson recommends shoeshine boy as an outsource-proof career choice.
Giuseppe Filippucci (Rinaldo Smordoni) and the orphaned Pasquale Maggi (Franco Interlenghi) are young boys, close friends living in recent post-World War II Rome. They are only shoeshine boys, but their shared dream is to purchase their own riding horse. Because they barely scrape by financially, when Giuseppe's older brother, Attillio, offers them the chance to sell black market American blankets to a local fortune teller, they eagerly accept his offer. Unknown to the boys, the deal is a scam. While the boys are negotiating, Attillio and two of his henchmen, posing as policemen, raid the fortune teller's apartment for stolen goods and carry off her contraband. Although ill-used by the gang, the boys are well-paid, using their money to buy and stable the horse. The story then takes a bad turn for the protagonists when the fortune teller identifies Giuseppe and Pasquale to the police. They are carted off to a juvenile detention center, and what the boys at first believe to be a temporary lark becomes deadly serious as the police pressure them to rat out the real black market ring. They both refuse to snitch until Pasquale, tricked into believing Giuseppe is receiving a severe beating, names his friend's brother. Their fortunes and friendship deteriorate as they are inextricably swallowed by the prison system.
Vittorio De Sica's socially realistic approach to filmmaking yields a few decidedly non-Hollywood characterizations. One interesting aspect of the movie is that prison bureaucrats are not sadistic or actively malevolent. They are depicted as harried, unhappy individuals, not villains. In one scene, a prison official accepts a cigarette from a prisoner in trade for three matches; in another scene, the prison doctor conducts his physicals like an assembly line (his prescription for a boy with advanced tuberculosis is that he needs to eat more); prison employees at all levels—from guards to warden—are underpaid and understaffed. The banality of evil in Shoeshine is manifested as a disregard and objectification of the young prisoners by the overwhelmed bureaucrats. Some of the boys, such as Giuseppe and Pasquale, have done nothing to merit such harsh punishment, while others have committed serious crimes. It's clear, however, that most of the criminal activity is an outgrowth of the severe economic depression that Italy is suffering after the war. The burgeoning black market, with its huge loss of taxable income, is a natural target for law enforcement. Criminals both real and imaginary, including the huge population of newly orphaned children, are relentlessly pursued and incarcerated in numbers so great that the whole penal system is on the verge of collapse. The movie, on one level, investigates the social and individual human cost of a state policy that ultimately dehumanizes those on both sides of the law. On another level, viewed as a film about relationships, it's the moving story of a friendship torn apart by misunderstanding and foolish choices. Either way, the film is heartbreakingly effective.
The picture on this Entertainment One DVD, while nowhere near the caliber of a typical re-mastered Criterion disc, is worlds better than the 2002 Image Entertainment release. The new NTSC DVD appears similar to the PAL release. The contrast is not overblown as on the Image disc, yielding deeper shadows and better rendering of detail in faces, clothing, and backgrounds. There are film defects in the form of scratches, flickering, and jumped frames. The DVD is also interlaced, which could cause artifacts on some software players, but my standalone player handled the picture with no combing. Overall, it's a quite watchable transfer for a sixty-five-year-old movie. The yellow subtitles are easy to read, and the decent English translation is a big plus. The monophonic audio is full of hiss, distorts often, and generally sounds like a typical ancient optical track. It's passable, or at least not painful, at middling volume.
The extras are an audio commentary from author Burt Cardullo and a trailer of the film. Cardullo's description of the symbolism of the framing shots of the two boys begins to wear thin about halfway through the movie. Aside from that minor gripe, I found it to be an informative and fascinating look at the director's creative process. He mentions that the 1940s documentary look of Shoeshine is attributable to bought or stolen American film stock, the same film that was used for American war propaganda documentaries. He says that director Vittorio De Sica was unhappy that his producers forced him to use traditional Hollywood-style musical cues to telegraph comic or dramatic moments. He also notes that the boy actors (all local amateurs) were selected for their looks; the more realistically homely and ragged boys were rejected for the fear that they would not be sympathetic enough to the audience. It would appear that even neo-realism has its limitations within the realm of the cinematic dream.
This may be the lesser of his three neo-realist films, but as in Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., Vittorio De Sica does not shy away from plainly spoken, sad stories of common people. Shoeshine is a movie with a message no less important today than it was over sixty years ago, and it is still eminently watchable.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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