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Children under the influence
A region 2 DVD review of SHOESHINE / SCIUCIÀ by Slarek
 

An unaware viewer could easily be misdirected by the first sequence of Shoeshine [Sciuscià], which features two boys on horseback riding furiously for the sheer thrill of the experience, suggesting perhaps a tale set amongst the landed gentry, for whom horse riding would have been an essential element of country life. But to make this assumption would require ignoring four crucial things about the opening titles that this sequence immediately follows. First is the title itself, an occupation – if it can so be called – that sits at the very bottom of the social ladder. Then there's the typeface used for the credits, not the tidy serif font generally associated with tales of the wealthy and privileged, but a rough-and-ready hand painted lettering of the sort a merchant might slap on a sign advertising reduced price goods. And look closely at the background picture behind the titles – that's no country house, but the interior of a prison. Finally there's the director's name, Vittoirio De Sica, one of the leading lights of Italian neorealist cinema, a movement not exactly known for its interest in the lives of the idle rich.

It's a seductive opening, energetically shot, and very effectively establishes the vigour and love for life of its two young leads, Giuseppe and the orphaned Pasquale. This is 1945 Rome – the war is over, unemployment and economic hardship are rife, and the only ones with any real money are the occupying American GIs, whose shoes the two boys shine to raise enough cash to briefly indulge this shared passion for riding. When they ride horses they are no longer poor and struggling, Pasquale no longer has to sleep in a lift at night – for a short time, they are truly free and kings amongst men.

Pasquale and Giuseppe dream of buying a specific horse, but know full well it is beyond their means. When an opportunity arises to make some money through Giuseppe's older brother Attilio by selling black market blankets to an elderly fortune teller, they jump at it. What they do not realise is that this is a set-up for Attilio's gang to enter the scene posing as policemen and rob the woman blind. The money the boys make from their role enables them to buy the horse, but their moment of joy does not last long – with the fortune teller's help, the bona fide police soon track them down and arrest them.

I should point out that this is not so much the plot of the film as the set-up, and we are just 15 minutes in by the time the pair have their collars felt, and five minutes later they are in the detention centre in which much of the rest of the film takes place. Here the two are immediately separated, placed in different cells on different floors, and soon find their seemingly unbreakable friendship put at risk by the deception, indifference and self-interest of others.

The opening scenes, captivating though they are, do not prepare you for how utterly compelling the film becomes at this point. A host of delightfully sketched secondary characters are introduced, many of whom would later become prison drama standards, but would rarely, if ever, be as perfectly judged or believable as they are here. The young cast are consistently superb, and never for a second does De Sica romanticise them or their predicament, an approach that still feels fresh and vital, in part due to Hollywood's sentimentalist approach to child characters and seeming inability to tell a genuinely honest story about childhood years.

The children are the dramatic core of Shoeshine, young kids forced to grow before their time but emotionally unready for the consequences. The boys soon find themselves part of a community that is both supportive and divisive, depending in part on which cell you find yourself in. New bonds are formed within these small, family-sized units, and though the inmates turn against each other and help drive a wedge between the two friends, they do so as a result of misinformation and partially misguided loyalties rather than any real malice. The adults, on the other hand, manipulate the pair for their own ends without a care for the harm it inflicts – as the boys repeatedly refuse to name names, the portly head of the gang they are protecting greedily feasts on wine, women and beefsteak, while a cruel deception pulled on Giuseppe by the police (an action later twice played out for real) sets the two boys against each other and on a downward path that leads ultimately to tragedy.

Don't be misled into thinking that this makes for relentlessly bleak viewing – the film's even-handed approach to its characters, its righteous energy, its moments of delighful character humour and its extraordinary humanity make for a profoundly affecting but hugely satisfying movie experience. The script (by Sergio Amidei, Adolfo Franci, C.G. Viola and Cesare Zavattini) builds a swiftly flowing and gripping narrative around a series of distinctive and believable characters, brought vividly to life by De Sica's handling and some faultlessly naturalistic performances. The cinematography, with its excellent use of light and dark and the academy frame, is consistently superb, and the use of tracking and even crane shots suggestive of a far more recent work, but used with real purpose and understanding of film as a storytelling medium. The same is true of the editing, largely unobtrusive but quietly masterful in its importance to the pace and storytelling, exploding into life in a fight in the shower, which is as furiously cut as any such sequence you'll find in modern cinema.

The first foreign language film to win an Oscar and made just three years before what many regard as De Sica's masterpiece Bicycle Thieves [Ladri di biciclette], Shoeshine deserves to be held in similarly high regard. It's influence on subsequent cinema is considerable, from the French New Wave (the early films of François Truffaut in particular) to the work of American directors like Scorsese and a range of subsequent prison-set movies (a couple of moments here even resonate in Roy Minton and Alan Clarke's borstal tale Scum). Shoeshine fully deserves its status as a cinema classic, for the story it tells, for its technical assurance, for its winning performances, but most of all because it makes us care, and I mean really care, about the characters and their unfortunate fates, and reflect on the social conditions that must ultimately be held responsible.

sound and vision

The picture here is, and I quote from the DVD packaging, a 'new progressive transfer from a brand new Italian film restoration'. And it looks superb. Remember that the film was released back in 1946 and so the occasional damaged shot and slight variance in contrast is not exactly surprising, but the most part the print is in excellent condition, with a fine level of detail and a lovely tonal range, including rock solid black levels, and there's barely a dust spot to be seen anywhere. We are informed in the commentary that the film was shot on the very stock used for documentary footage by the American army, from whom it was likely bought or, ahem, 'borrowed', but you wouldn't know it from the image on display here. This is a terrific restoration job and a first class DVD transfer.

In many respects the Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack shows its age, having little of the dynamic range of modern films and a degree of background hiss and fluff, but in all other respects it fares very well, with little evidence of the pops and crackle of damage, and the dialogue and music as clear as you'd expect for a film of this vintage.

extra features

The commentary by Bert Cardullo, author of the book Vittorio De Sica: Director, Actor, Screenwriter and lecturer at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey does play a lot like a film studies lecture, with Cardullio pointing out everything of interest that happens in frame and using the terms "Note the..." and "Look at the..." so often I almost began to wish Samuel L. Jackson would burst in, point a gun at his head and double-dare him to say it again. But if you can put up with this (and you do get used to it) Cardullo does provide useful background information on the film and some interesting analysis of the use of framing and editing (not all of which I necessarily agree with, but still appreciate), though also quite a bit of pointing out what should be obvious to even half-awake viewers.

Through Children's Eyes – De Sica & Shoeshine (25:28) looks back at the film, its success abroad, its influence on later filmmakers, its Oscar win, and the social conditions at the time of its production. Comprising of interviews and film clips, this is an Italian-made documentary (the extras here appear to have been licensed along with the transfer) and subtitled in English, but the identifying captions are not, so you might need an Italian-English dictionary handy to work out who some of the contributors are. It's all interesting stuff, though.

In Ragazzi [The boys] (21:21), actors Franco Interlenghi and Rinaldo Smordoni (who played Pasquale and Giuseppe respectively) recall how they landed the roles in the film and their experiences as young actors in post-war Rome. It's an enthralling piece – Interlenghi in particular is a delightful storyteller, his tales of casting struggles and later popularity with women of the world are both revealing and entertaining.

In The Neorealist Cinema (8:21), Gianpiero Brunetta concisely outlines the principles and evolution of Italian Neorealist cinema.

The standard, high quality MoC booklet includes fine essays from Bert Cardullo, De Sica himself, and critics James Agee and Pauline Kael. Kael's heartfelt memories of her first viewing of the film in particular are compelling reading.

summary

There will be some a fair few out there whose only exposure to the Neorealist cinema of Vittorio De Sica is through miserably watching Bicycle Thieves in Film Studies when you really wanted to watch The Fast and the Furious or some other such vacuous nonsense, and nothing I say is going to sell Shoeshine to you. Which is a crying shame, as there is so, so much to become excited about here, and you only have to look at the way children are handled in most modern western films – brattish, insufferable, mawkishly, artificially cute and almost always horribly over-performed – to appreciate the refreshing honesty and truth of their portrayal here. Shoeshine is a gem of a movie, and if you're looking for evidence of just why Italian Neorealism is still held in such high regard, then your search is over.

Masters of Cinema have done it again and how with this superb DVD – the transfer is excellent and the extensive set of extra feature all very worthwhile. Highly Recommended.

Shoeshine
Sciuscià

Italy 1946
82 mins
director
Vittorio De Sica
starring
Franco Interlenghi
Rinaldo Smordoni
Annielo Mele
Bruno Ortenzi
Emilio Cigoli

DVD details
region 2
video
4:3 OAR
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
Italian
subtitles
English
extras
Commentary by author and lecturer Bert Cardullo
Through Children's Eyes documentary
The Boys interviews
Neorealist cinema featurette
Booklet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
25 September 2006
review posted
16 September 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews