“Shoeshine” Marked a New Era of Political Cinema


Though the Second World War continued in Europe through May, 1945, Rome was liberated from Nazi occupation in June, 1944, and most of Italy was liberated by the end of that year. Soon came a revolutionary film—Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City”—which began shooting in January, 1945, using many nonprofessional actors and filmed partly on location. The film told a story of Italian resistance to, and collaboration with, German forces, and of the joint personal and civic tragedies of the occupation. It displayed Rossellini’s art of dramatic analysis—of images as embodiments of ideas—and ushered in the movement that came to be called Italian neorealism. The film remains powerful, although it’s hard to see, now, what was revolutionary about it. Rossellini’s main accomplishment was to hold a mirror—or, rather, two mirrors—to Italian society: one that looked back to the country’s recent past and another that forced the country to confront the resulting political and moral crises of the present.

Vittorio De Sica, an actor and director, followed in the same vein with “Shoeshine,” from 1946, which is playing at Film Forum in a new restoration. The Italian title, “Sciuscià,” is a phonetic borrowing from the English word, a fact that spotlights the essence of the story, which is about the many boys who, soon after Rome’s liberation, were scrounging for cash by shining shoes—mainly the shoes of occupying American soldiers. The central crisis faced by the two boys at the heart of the film—and by pretty much everyone—is poverty, the sheer economic and material deprivations of the immediate postwar period. But the title of the film suggests another crisis: the effects of American occupation, which, however welcome it was in freeing the city and the country from Nazi tyranny, proved in other regards demoralizing and corrupting.

The central characters, Pasquale Maggi (Franco Interlenghi), who seems to be about fourteen, and Giuseppe Filippucci (Rinaldo Smordoni), about twelve, are city kids who covet a horse and are saving up to buy one. (The sharp-minded Giuseppe carries their substantial savings—a thick stack of banknotes wrapped in paper—in an inside pocket.) They hustle on the streets for customers while keeping an eye out for police officers, who are likely to confiscate their shine boxes and resell them to other young scufflers. The American servicemen who are their customers, addressed invariably as “Joe,” pay a pittance but promise gifts, always “tomorrow,” it seems, though one does hand over a coveted rarity: a chocolate bar. The boys are only a few thousand more lire short of their target, and they get a tip from Giuseppe’s older brother, a petty gangster, to go see another grifter—a man called Panza (“Paunch”). Panza gives them a couple of American blankets to sell, on the black market, to a woman, but this gets them mixed up, unawares, in a bigger racket of Panza’s, for which they end up getting arrested and sent to a harsh juvenile reformatory.

Much of “Shoeshine” is a classic prison movie, but with the special pathos that the prisoners are ingenuous youths tossed bewildered into a hive of iniquity. The drama depicts their treatment by officials and guards that ranges from callous and cruel to corrupt; relationships among the young inmates that include enmity and brutality, trust and solidarity; intimations of a political system that treats the young offenders with cavalier contempt, offers little chance of reform, and merely warehouses them to keep them off the streets; and, of course, the inevitable and dangerous dream of breaking out. Much of the moral rot that’s revealed results from enduring social ills: criminal gangs and their codes of silence, a justice system that allots skilled lawyers to those who can afford them and overworked plodders to those who don’t, and the eternal contrast between the poor who struggle for subsistence and the rich who fatten themselves in restaurants on fine cuisine. Much of the action is sheer melodrama—which is no pejorative. De Sica, working with a host of screenwriters, builds a teeming story—involving broken friendships, families, institutions, dreams, and lives—in which elements of observation and research are concentrated into intensely emotional moments that heighten the film’s moral and mnemonic power. (There are also several final shots that cap off the tragic ending with lamentable, risible bathos, as if suggesting the filmmaker’s own limits of taste and profundity.)

Other neorealist films—Rossellini’s “Paisan” (1946), De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (1948)—rapidly brought Italian cinema to a high level of international acclaim (“Shoeshine” and “Bicycle Thieves” won Oscars, and “Rome, Open City” was nominated.) The term “neorealism” is most useful when understood practically, not as a rigid category but as a loose grouping of filmmakers sharing general principles: something like a journalistic ideal of reporting on the lives of ordinary people whose struggles are rooted in social and political conditions—with a self-aware moral aspect to their investigative fervor and their raising of consciousness. It’s an idea that quickly gave rise to a diverse set of masterworks—ranging from the monumental tone of Luchino Visconti’s “La Terra Trema” (1948) to the political horror of Rossellini’s “Germany Year Zero.”

Because reality involves far more than what is readily observable, neorealism carried within itself its own destruction—or at least its own spore-like dispersal into a new cinema of far wider scope. De Sica soon turned to metaphysical political fantasy with “Miracle in Milan” (1951) and to the intimate passion of star-powered romance with “Terminal Station” (1953), starring Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift. (My favorite De Sica film is “The Roof,” from 1956, which fuses law and eroticism, social cohesion and Kafkaesque absurdity, economic despair and comedy of manners.) Visconti turned his attention to the power of movies itself (“Bellissima”), to literary culture (“White Nights”), to history (“Senso”). Federico Fellini (who co-wrote the script for “Rome, Open City’) emphasized the carnivalesque flamboyance of daily life (as in “La Strada,” from 1954). Rossellini, too, turned to fantasy (“The Machine to Kill Bad People”), to revolutionary Catholicism (“The Flowers of St. Francis”) and then, teaming up with Ingrid Bergman (to whom he was married from 1950 to 1957), combined fervent social observation with psychological intensity and a kind of imagistic compression that seemed borrowed from Hollywood masterworks. In his later years, in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, he turned his attention almost entirely to the history of ideas, producing docudramatic bio-pics about Louis XIV, Socrates, and Descartes.

The most radical of filmmakers to get a start in this era was Michelangelo Antonioni, and his career exemplifies the way that neorealism’s division was also its triumph: it didn’t offer a style to copy or an attitude to adopt but a quest to embody social conscience in new aesthetic forms. Antonioni made his first feature, “Story of a Love Affair,” in 1950, and, with it, inaugurated a theme—the mind control and the social conditioning imposed by media, urbanism, and architecture—for which he developed a strikingly original style that embodied and reflected it. This style burst out into comprehensive originality in 1960, with “L’Avventura,” which defined a new generation of cinematic modernity—confronting a new realm of realities with the new forms to which they gave rise. ♦

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