Director: Vittorio De Sica
Production: Alfa Cinematografica (Italy); black and white, 35mm; running time: 93 minutes; length: 8,340 feet. Released 1946. Cost: less than 1 million lire.
Producer: P. W. Tamburella; screenplay: Cesare Zavattini, Sergio Amidei, A. Franci, Cesare Giulio Viola, and Vittoria De Sica, from a story by Zavattini; photography: Anchise Brizzi; editor: Nicolo Lazzari; production designer: Ivo Batteli; music: A. Cicognini.
Cast: Franco Interlenghi (Pasquale); Rinaldo Smordoni (Giuseppe); Amiello Mele (Raffaele); Bruno Otensi (Archangeli); Anna Pedoni (Nannarella); Enrico de Silva (Giorgio); Antonio Lo Nigro (Righetto); Emilio Cigoli (Staffera); Angelo D'Amico (The Sicilian); Antonio Carlino (Inhabitant of the Abruzzes); Francesco De Nicola (Ciriola); Pacifico Astrologo (Vittorio); Maria Campi (Palmreader); Leo Garavaglia (Commissioner); Giuseppe Spadare (The Advocate); Irene Smordoni (Giuseppe's mother).
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* * *
Vittoria De Sica's first major film, I bambini ci guardano, the account of a broken marriage as seen through the eyes of a child, was also his first significant attempt at the social realism which would characterize his pre-1960s films. From the beginning he explained that his films were a protest "against the absence of human solidarity, against the indifference of society towards suffering. They are a world in favour of the poor and the unhappy." I bambini ci guardano was De Sica's first collaboration with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. Their fruitful partnership produced the most admired films of neorealism— Sciuscia and Ladri di biciclette. Each is an extraordinary indictment of the social circumstances which existed during post-Fascist Italy; Sciuscia is uncompromisingly tragic, while Ladri di biciclette, tempered by less cruelty, conveys a sense of tenderness.
Sciuscia is a neologism coined by the shoe-shine boys of Rome. These youngsters plied their trade to American soldiers who were among those few able to afford this minor luxury in a country filled with unemployment and poverty following the war. The embryo for the film was the result of De Sica's close observation of two shoe-shine boys in the streets of Rome. He studied their habits, their hand-to-mouth existence, and their dealing in black market contraband. Inevitably, he recalled, the two boys were arrested for stealing a gas mask and sent off to a reformatory. They were victims, he said, of "the legacy from war . . . the drama was not invented by me but staged by life instead, drawing to its fatal conclusion." He related his story to Zavattini, who fashioned it into a screenplay, resulting in a major neorealist film. Sciuscia emphasized the creators' commitment to showing, through actual incidents, "the indifference of humanity to the needs of others."
De Sica uses two non-professional actors and the streets of Rome to tell of the two boys, Pasquale and Giuseppe, who shine shoes and become involved in crime in order to raise money to buy a white horse. Their black market activities get them arrested and sent to reform school where, supposedly, they will be rehabilitated. Reformatory life turns out to be far more harsh and corrupt than life on the streets and in their struggle for survival they betray each other, resulting in the death of Giuseppe. The anguish of all suffering humanity is displayed in Pasquale's unforgettable cry of despair at the end of the film.
Though Sciuscia was universally hailed by critics as a work of art, it was by no means a financial success. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented De Sica with a special Academy Award describing the film as "an Italian production of superlative quality made under adverse circumstances." Sciuscia was successful only in art houses and De Sica would later say, "Shoeshine was a disaster for the producer. It cost less than one million lire but in Italy few people saw it as it was released at a time when the first American films were reappearing . . . . "
At the time of its American release, James Agee's first response was, "Shoeshine is about as beautiful, moving, and heartening a film as you are ever likely to see." Soon after he recanted these remarks, describing it as "the raw, or at its best, the roughed-out materials of art" rather than the perfected work of art he had first thought. Such critical reassessment has diminished the reputation of most of De Sica's work and today he is often written off as a minor director. Yet for many, including Orson Welles, his films retain a poeticism and sincerity. In 1960, Welles said, "I ran his Shoeshine recently and the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life . . . . "