Shoeshine (1946): De Sica’s Neorealistic Classic, First Oscar Winner of Best Foreign Language Film

Oscar History: Best Foreign Language Film, 1947-Present

Italy (Sciuscia)

Shoeshine, Vittorio de Sica’s second film, was the first popular success of the Italian neo=realistic movement, spearheaded by Roberto Rossellini a year earlier with “Roma, Open City,” starring Anna Magnani. 

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Shoeshine won the first Honorary Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1946, before an annual competitive category was established in 1956.

De Sica made his debut in 1942 with “The Children Are Watching Us” (“I bambini ci quardano”), which was released in the U.S. decades after it had been made. 

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Along with Roberto Rossellini, he was a major force of the neorealistic cinema, working within its traditions and boundaries for a decade or so, contributing such seminal films as “The Bicycle Thief” (1948), “Miracle in Milan” (1950) and “Umberto D.” (1951).

Most of these films are committed to a heightened degree of realism, through the depiction of relevant social themes (poverty, unemployment, alienation), on-location shooting, and the use of ordinary people in lieu of professional actors.  It is therefore not surprising that they achieved greater critical acclaim and commercial popularity outside of Italy than at their own home.

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Cesare Zavattini, the leading theoretician of the movement, who became De Sica’s longtime collaborator, wrote the screenplay, which concerns two poor shoeshine boys, who are best friends. 

A bleak tale of the corruption of innocence in Nazi-occupied Rome, the tale centers on Pasquale and Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni and Franco Interlenghi), who become involved in a black-market deal in an effort to buy horses.  Caught, they are sent to prison, where one inadvertently betrays the other and is later killed by him in revenge. 

Last Scene: Spoiler Alert

At their official court hearing, Giuseppe and Pasquale are sentenced to one and two years in prison, respectively. Giuseppe commits to Arcangeli’s escape plan, and during the projection of a movie, they escape.

Pasquale tells the police chief where the escapees went and leads them there, but they’re gone. Pasquale runs off and finds Giuseppe and Arcangeli riding across a bridge. They dismount and Arcangeli flees, but Giuseppe stays. Pasquale takes off his belt and starts to flog Giuseppe. Giuseppe falls off the bridge and hits his head on the rocks below. Pasquale cries over his fallen friend’s body as the police arrive.

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The story begins and ends with the image of a horse, representing a free spirit whose final escape symbolizes the end of friendship.

The late great French critic Andre Bazin once observed that “De Sica’s characters are lit from within by the tenderness he feels for them,” and that while “Rossellini’s style is a way of seeing, De Sica’s is primarily a way of feeling.”  For him, De Sica was “one of those directors whose entire talent derives from the love they have for their subject, from their ultimate understanding of it.”

If the film seems shapeless from a structural perspective, it is because the tale springs from the messiness of everyday life, the kind of which cannot fit any patterned narrative.

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By today’s standards, “Shoeshine” is a bit sentimental, melodramatic, and lacking the clarity and style of “The Bicycle Thief,” but it has largely retained its raw emotional power and historical significance. 

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The candid depiction of the physical and mental injuries inflected on children in a war-devastated, dislocated and dehumanized society is still touching.

 

Release date: April 27, 1946

Running time: 93 minutes

Cast
Franco Interlenghi as Pasquale Maggi
Rinaldo Smordoni as Giuseppe Filippucci
Annielo Mele as Raffaele
Bruno Ortenzi as Arcangeli
Emilio Cigoli as Staffera
Maria Campi as Palmist (uncredited)

Critical Status:

In 1948, it received an Honorary Award at the Academy Awards for its high quality. This award was the precursor of what would later become the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, in 1956.

Orson Welles is quoted of saying of Shoeshine: “What De Sica can do, that I can’t do. I ran his Shoeshine again recently and the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life.”