Vittorio De Sica
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 12 April 2007
Source Eureka! / Masters of Cinema DVD
With the hindsight of sixty years, we’re more conscious today that Italian neorealism was less of a radical break with conventional cinema than it appeared in its own day. Not that its highlights – Rome, Open City; Paisà ; La Terra Trema; Bicycle Thieves; and Shoeshine itself – are any less impressive, but there’s a sense that the innovations of neorealism lay more in its subject matter and setting, essentially the struggle for existence of a demoralised people in the devastated environment of post-war Italy, than in the cinematic means brought to bear on that subject and setting.
In the case of Vittorio De Sica, this is even clearer than with Rossellini and Visconti, especially in terms of De Sica’s mixture of melodrama and sentimentality, unsurprising for someone who made his initial mark in Italian cinema as a matinée idol in the late thirties. De Sica does keep this melodrama and sentimentality in fine balance in Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves, but by the time of Umberto D (old man-young girl-cute little dog) this is veering close to the mawkish. Unlike Martin Scorsese, who waxes eloquently on Umberto D in his My Voyage To Italy documentary, I lose interest in De Sica’s cinema at this point.
But not in the films of the forties—or rather, the two neorealist classics (Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves) and The Children Are Watching Us, the film De Sica made in the middle of the war years. That film, shot in a far more conventional style, still presents itself as something of a precursor to the neorealist films. Significantly one of its writers was Cesare Zavattini, the central screenwriter of Italian neorealism, and there are a number of moments when the film is pushing towards a neorealist style. There’s the authentic feel of the occasional location shooting, as when the mother’s lover Roberto accosts the maid Agnese in the street. There are the times when the film broadens its focus beyond that of its central characters, in ways that are not essential to the plot, to take in the social context—the pan around the seaside restaurant, the outside ball game, and the fascinating scene where the train farewell between husband and wife is shifted to the side as an unknown couple force themselves into the foreground.
But the essential connection between The Children Are Watching Us and the other films is the key figure of the child, who clearly attracts De Sica’s interest and sympathy and inspires his filmmaking. In The Children Are Watching Us the child Pric√≤ is the central figure around which the narrative of marital discord and adultery revolves (and from which De Sica milks all possible sentimental effects); in Bicycle Thieves the significance of Antonio’s experiences after his bicycle is stolen is made apparent in its refraction through the eyes of his son Bruno, who plays as important a role in the second half of the film as Antonio himself; and in Shoeshine the two central characters are the two boys, Giuseppe and Pasquale.
The two are shoeshine boys, making their living in the straightened circumstances of an impoverished Italy in defeat, under American occupation—in fact, American GIs appear to be their primary market, with the film’s Italian title, Sciuscià , drawn from the shoeshine’s very approximate rendering of the English call “Shoeshine!” It’s made clear that the boys are living a life of hand-to-mouth poverty, with Giuseppe’s family crammed into a makeshift section of a tenement apartment, and the orphaned Pasquale literally homeless: he spends his nights (it’s reported to us) sleeping in a lift.
All of which makes their introduction, astride a galloping horse, rather bizarre. In this opening sequence, in a series of long tracking shots marked by fast-paced editing, Giuseppe and Pasquale race past on their favourite horse, which they have hired for the ride now, but which they together are saving up to buy. This is very far from the miserabilist downbeat realism you’d expect from the film’s setting, but it’s very in keeping with De Sica’s romanticism and sentimental streak.
Surprisingly enough, this story of two shoeshine boys’ fascination with a horse for hire is based on something De Sica observed himself, although I guess that the film’s development on this – where the boys’ saving-up to buy the horse is made to seem a highly realistic plan – is a novelistic addition. At any rate, the horse takes on a clear significance in the film, as the symbol of the boys’ hopes and ideals. The downturn in their own fortunes once they’re sent to the boys’ prison is marked by the horse that they now own being hired out to draw a black hearse. And the horse is again present in the final’s final scene, to underline the tragedy and the sense of blighted promise and lost hopes.
Giuseppe and Pasquale are inseparable in these early scenes, reliant on and supportive of each other to the extent that Giuseppe’s own family hardly seems an issue in his life, and De Sica underlines this with his consistent use of two-shots for their scenes together. After the two are unwittingly involved, through Giuseppe’s older, criminal brother, in a scam and are arrested and imprisoned, this partnership is fractured, and De Sica also marks this cinematically. At the literal point of separation, as the two are forced off to different cells, De Sica’s camera cranes up following Giuseppe as he ascends the stairs to the prison’s second level of cells, a upward movement that acts as an ironic comment on the start of the boys’ downward spiral.
This extravagant camera movement is again a sign that Shoeshine’s style hardly meets with our assumptions of what a neorealist film should look like: that is, a simplicity of means, location shooting, and an avoidance of the technical tricks of mainstream cinema in favour of something more authentic. (Not that Shoeshine is any the worse for this.) There’s an even more elaborate scene-setting crane shot at the prison morning reveille as the camera rises up over the two storeys of prison cells and then comes down again following the boy prisoners down the flight of stairs.
In fact, this prison setting (in actuality a disused convent) appears in the film’s high-angle opening credits shot, and there De Sica applies expressionistic effects of light and shadow, in particular the foreboding shadow of the window grille falling on the floor and the wall. In all these cases De Sica is making use of techniques and stylistic approaches that he learnt from the Italian commercial cinema (remember that Shoeshine was his fifth film as a director but only the first acknowledged as “neorealist”). He’s even willing to use conventional musical effects, such as the sudden blare of soundtrack music when the boys are fingerprinted. But all these effects are carefully calibrated to provide a succinct and telling comment on the film’s setting and story, and they’re subsumed within a world that is very different from that of De Sica’s earlier films, one that is now of the working- rather than middle- and upper-classes, grittier, challenging even, and reflective of the trials and tensions of Italy’s social reality.
Prison marks a change in the dynamics of the relationship between Pasquale and Giuseppe. In the outside world Pasquale had been the cooler, more mature, more thoughtful of the two, taking on some kind of nurturing-guardian role even, something of a mixture of older brother and father-figure—this irrespective of the family that Giuseppe has. But prison destroys this, primarily through the act of betrayal that the prison authorities force on Pasquale: he believes Giuseppe is being beaten in the next room and, reverting to the tearful young boy he actually is, reveals the involvement of Giuseppe’s older brother in the scam.
Once Giuseppe learns of this betrayal, the physical separation that prison has forced upon the two then becomes an emotional separation as well. In fact, the two boys have already found themselves in very different mini-societies in their two cells. Pasquale’s is a gentler and nurturing one, with the cell leader being a bespectacled teenage intellectual figure, and with all the cellmates looking out for Rafaelle, the sweet and innocent dying tubercular boy.
Giuseppe’s new world, on the other hand, is a rougher one, given to violence and casual cruelties. Pasquale’s new-found relationship with Rafaelle (who, in stature and age, is a kind of replacement for Giuseppe) is parallelled by Giuseppe’s with the bullying gang-leader Arcangeli. It is Arcangeli who forces Giuseppe into a fight with Pasquale, and De Sica makes clear the emotional distress this places on Pasquale when he pulls the camera back to a high-angle shot down on the exercise yard. Hemmed in by the circle of boys, we see Pasquale make a brief gesture to touch Giuseppe as the latter moves away, a gesture that is all the more emotionally-laden for being viewed at such a distance by us and for being presented as such a small (but still striking) movement within a larger scene.
Arcangeli also orchestrates Giuseppe’s revenge on Pasquale through the planting of a file in his cell. Now the fake beating of Giuseppe is answered by the prison authorities’ real punishment beating of Pasquale. But in Giuseppe’s response to this we see that his emotional bond with Pasquale has not been completely severed, which leads later to a fistfight between Arcangeli and Pasquale, effectively fighting over Giuseppe. And if this fight does mark a reconnection between the two boys, it is also one further stage in the downward slide of the boys’ fortunes. Pasquale is now officially designated as “violent by nature” and “dangerous to himself and others”, and he is placed in isolation.
The prison authorities’ callousness and lack of interest in understanding the individual stories of the boys placed under their care are never made the object of an explicit attack on De Sica’s part. More importantly, no individual is singled out as the “villain” in what is done to Pasquale and Giuseppe; in fact, all the police and prison officials, the clerks, judges, and doctors, are seen as cogs in the wheels of the system, struggling to maintain their own position within that system, some plagued by their own pain and troubles, some even conscious of the injustice they’re contributing to but powerless to effect change.
The unlikely source for the film’s most explicit comment on the social issue central to Shoeshine is the lawyer that Giuseppe’s family arranges for him. An unsympathetic figure (if only for the way he tries in court to shift the blame solely onto Pasquale’s shoulders), slovenly in appearance and apparently without scruples, he becomes the voice of De Sica’s concern for these children:
This is no crime. If you think they’re guilty, then this court must condemn all of us too, the people who – in pursuit of our passions – abandon our children to fend for themselves, children who are left all alone.
In the context of this story, a tragic outcome is inevitable. Pasquale pursues Giuseppe and Arcangeli in their escape from the prison, and confronts them on a small bridge where they have taken the horse jointly owned by Pasquale and Giuseppe. It has to be said that it’s very unfortunate that this final “outdoor” sequence is shot on a patently fake studio set, jarring stylistically with the rest of the film. But the emotional force of the scene still holds. After the physical separation of the two boys during their time in prison, now the two are brought together in two-shot, but it’s a tragic reprise of their status from the start of the film, as Pasquale bends over the lifeless Giuseppe and howls his pain and despair. The camera then follows the horse as it trots off-screen, the symbol of the hopes and ideals that have now so decisively been withdrawn from these boys.