De Sica’s film occupies a place alongside Bicycle Thieves and Los Olvidados. It would be easy to say that in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War European intellectuals suddenly discovered a conscience and began to recognise society’s underclass, but the truth is that this is no more than a continuation of C19th Realism. The presence of the poor was nothing new in Western European thought; but it might be that the neo-realists were the first to use the magnifying glass of cinema to tell their story.
Although dated, obviously, Shoeshine is in its way as harrowing a journey as anything portrayed by Loach or Clarke. Two engaging shoeshine boys, Pasquale and Giuseppe, make a parlous living. Some of the clients are American GIs, who are shown as being poor payers. The two kids dream of owning a horse (shades of Kes). When Giuseppe’s brother gets them in on a scheme to sell black market US blankets, they suddenly find themselves rich. They buy the horse. This pre-empts a remarkable sequence when the pair ride the horse through the streets of Rome, cheered on by their fellow shoeshiners. This is cinema at its most visceral and the method in which it’s filmed, clearly on the hoof, only adds to the impact.
However, the kids are busted by the police and the action then moves to a juvenile prison. What started off seeming like a sentimental tale dealing with charming scamps gradually turns into something darker, ending in conflict and tragedy. There’s vast skill in the way the narrative is constructed to gradually lure its audience with what initially appear to be harmless childish adventures, only for them to later realise that what’s really at stake for these lovable kids is not only their future role within society but also a struggle for survival. The image of the horse becomes representative of the natural life these children will never be allowed to lead. As such, Shoeshine feels as though it still contains a disconcerting relevance, sixty years on, not only in the ‘third’ world but also in the ‘first’.