Vittorio De Sica’s Italian classic Shoeshine shows rare instance when children slip into adulthood too soon

Why I wanted to write about Vittoria De Sica's Shoeshine is because it is largely set inside a prison, which is what life feels like for most of us now.

Baradwaj Rangan March 26, 2020 14:23:30 IST
Vittorio De Sica’s Italian classic Shoeshine shows rare instance when children slip into adulthood too soon

I’ve always wondered about the title of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946). Yes, it is about two boys who earn a living by shining shoes on the streets of Rome — but except for a sequence or two, these boys are hardly defined by their profession.

They are defined by the fact that they aren’t boys so much as… miniature-sized men. Like Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone (where child actors played adult roles, like gangsters and molls) or like some relatively recent Tamil films (Vijay Milton’s Goli Soda and Pandiraj’s Pasanga), Shoeshine views childhood not as a blissed-out period of innocence but a miniature version of adulthood.

Vittorio De Sicas Italian classic Shoeshine shows rare instance when children slip into adulthood too soon

A still from Shoeshine

But before diving into this Neorealist classic — one of the earliest Italian films to be slapped with this label — let me tell you why I wanted to write about it at this point: because it’s largely set inside a prison, which is what life feels like for most of us now. Yes, I could have written about Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, but that’s a bleak movie that ends with blinding hope. Yes, I could have written about Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, but that’s more of a zero-to-hero story. Had it not been set inside a prison, it could have been the “inspirational” story of, say, a beggar who becomes a business magnate.

But Shoeshine is a hope-less movie. It ends on one of the saddest of cinematic images, that of a horse by a bridge. It opens with one of the happiest of cinematic images, that of a horse flying through the wind. There are several horses, actually, and the sense is that of unbridled freedom. The two boys — the two protagonists, named Giuseppe and Pasquale — test-ride these animals at a race track. They want to buy a horse, but they can’t yet afford one. Why do a couple of shoeshine boys want a horse? This question comes up during a courtroom scene about an hour into the film, when Giuseppe faces a judge. The boy’s reply breaks your heart. He simply says, “To ride him.”

The reason Giuseppe and Pasquale end up in jail and, later, in court, has to do with stolen goods. It’s a long story. But the short of it is that the boys were asked to do something by Giuseppe’s brother, and when they are caught, one of the most important things is to not betray this brother. You could call it loyalty. You could also call it omerta, the Mafia code of silence. Either way, it’s a situation boys should never have to find themselves in — it’s an adult situation.

Take the scene where Giuseppe’s mother visits him. The boy enters the room with a smile, searching eagerly for a familiar face from home. (The room is filled with other boys, receiving visits from familiar faces from their homes.) A high-pitched flute (a piccolo, perhaps) plays behind Giuseppe — it’s a lively tune, but it droops as soon as Giuseppe spots his mother. She doesn’t smile back — his smile droops, too. Now, a sentimental violin takes over. This cannot be good news. Giuseppe shuffles over to the woman, bows his head out of shame, and asks, “Do you forgive me, Mama?”

His mother draws him to her lap. Looking down at the boy, she weeps. Giuseppe weeps, too. She asks, “How could you do something like this?” Like us, Giuseppe thinks she is upset because he did something wrong and he got caught and he is now in jail. Maybe there’s something else. Maybe she was dependent on the money he brought in from shining shoes and now she is in a bad situation. Maybe that explains the title, because everything loops back to Giuseppe’s profession. (And how odd it feels to talk about the “profession” of a little boy, as though he were an… adult!)

Giuseppe, his head still on his mother’s lap, says, “I wasn’t involved, Mama. We didn’t know anything.” The mother’s reply sounds like a non sequitur: “He is a criminal, I know.” He? Who and what is she talking about? She continues, “He is wretched, but he is your brother. You must not spy on him.” Giuseppe is as taken aback as we are. With a start, he extricates himself from his mother’s lap and stands up with a puzzled expression. “What are you saying, Mama?” She replies, “Don’t pretend. The police chief told me it was you two that talked.”

And here’s the beauty of Neorealist cinema. The film shares very little of our sentimentality. Here I was, feeling bad for Giuseppe, whose mother seems to feel more about the fact that her older son was “betrayed” by the boys than her younger son being in juvenile prison. But Giuseppe is, now, experiencing very grown-up, very adult emotions. He realises Pasquale — his best friend, his partner, the co-owner of his horse — has “ratted” on his brother. And all he can think of is revenge. He walks back inside, finds Pasquale in the yard, and begins to beat him up.

Vittorio De Sicas Italian classic Shoeshine shows rare instance when children slip into adulthood too soon

A still from Shoeshine

Pauline Kael wrote about this beautifully. She said, “Shoeshine was not conceived in the patterns of romance or melodrama; it is one of those rare works of art which seem to emerge from the welter of human experience without smoothing away the raw edges, or losing what most movies lose — the sense of confusion and accident in human affairs… the greatness of Shoeshine is in that feeling we get of human emotions that have not been worked-over and worked-into something (a pattern? a structure?) and cannot really be comprised in such a structure. We receive something more naked, something that pours out of the screen.”

In other words, even though there is a “story” and there is a “screenplay” that’s been worked out, these scaffoldings of “narrative cinema” are near-invisible in Shoeshine. Giuseppe and Pasquale don’t seem guided by a screenwriter so much as destiny. There are many movies about children who don’t get to experience childhood, but Shoeshine is one of the rare instances of children who slip into adulthood almost too soon.

De Sica would go on to make much better movies, but even today (and despite the distance that time inevitably brings), Shoeshine is some kind of classic.

For a fictional counterpart, consider The Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist. He, too, is a boy with a “profession”, almost too cynical for his age. He does something what an “adult” would do: he’s a thief. But when we read about him, he comes off as “cute”. There’s no cuteness in Giuseppe and Pasquale. Even though their story is staged and has been “invented” for us, and even though there are plot turns that — in different hands — could have been termed melodramatic, this doesn’t feel like fiction at all. It doesn’t feel like a documentary, either. There’s something else. It feels lived-in. It feels real.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

All images from Twitter.

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