Shoeshine (Alfa; Lopert) may strengthen a suspicion that the best movies in the world are being made, just now, in Italy. U.S. audiences have seen only one other important Italian picture, Open City. Shoeshine, in some respects, is even better.
In subject and story, Shoeshine is deceptively modest. It traces the gradual destruction of two boys of the Roman streets, twelve-year-old Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni) and his close friend, 14-year-old Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi). They are attractive and resourceful children, at first appearance, living the anarchic, hand-to-mouth life of most of Italy during the chaotic period between the Italian and German surrenders. Then they become front men for Giuseppe's older brother, in a small-time black market deal. They are caught and locked up for questioning. If they had informed on their elders promptly, they would probably have been released; but courage and their loyalty to Giuseppe's brother forbids informing. They are caught into the awful, rickety rollers of the State, and there they are ruined.
Some of the State's representatives are kind and well meaning, but they are hardly more helpful than the brutes, the prigs, the fools and the merely indifferent. The boys are locked in separate cells and come under new influences. Pasquale is tricked into informing; neither boy ever quite understands how they have been betrayed. The seraphically charming Pasquale dwindles into a corrupted, potential criminal. The stolid Giuseppe grows into a grave embodiment of vengeance. Deceit, bewilderment, loss of affection and of faith drive them to the edge of sanity. Finally Pasquale kills his friend. Over the dead body, he first begins to realize what he has done to his friend and to himselfand a little of what has been done to both of them.
Shoeshine was intended as a furious and moving indictment of a postwar society, and of a world, in which such things could happen. It is all of that, and more. It makes the oversimplified diagnosis and prescription of most social tracts look like so much complacent blueprint. It is filled, in every scene, with an awareness of the pitiful complexity of the causes of even simple evil. The jailers, bureaucrats, magistrates, lawyers and priests who are cogs in the machinery of destruction are savagely caricatured, but each one of them is presented with compassion and understanding, as well as rage. Institutions and individuals alike are shown to be staggering not only under their own intrinsic sins but also under the extra burdens which defeat, and war, and a generation of bullying and corruption, have bequeathed. And the crucial destruction takes place, as it must, in the heroes themselves.
Like all true tragic heroes, Shoeshine's boys are destroyed less by outside circumstance than by their inability, under the worst of circumstances, to keep faith with themselves and with all that they have reason to trust. And like all true tragic heroes, they are destroyed by a combination of their noblest traits and their weakest ones.