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16 May 2018

Sciuscià (1946)

Directed by: Vittorio De Sica
Music: Alessandro Sicognini
Starring: Franco Interlenghi,
Rinaldo Smordoni,
Annielo Mele, Bruno Ortenzi,
Emilio Sigoli, Maria Campi
In his poem “Works and Days” Hesiod writes about Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, who comes from Zeus to Epimetheus bearing a closed jar.  Epimetheus welcomes her, disregarding the warnings of his brother, Prometheus, who had told him never to accept a gift from Zeus. Pandora opens the jar scattering “burdensome toil and sickness and death” amongst men. All that is left in the jar is Elpis, the personification of Hope; she hovers close to the lip of the jar but cannot escape as Pandora closes the lid. So, Hope too remains amongst mankind but she’s trapped in the jar. Is Hope a blessing or a continuance of suffering?

Sciuscià (Shoeshine), made by Vittorio De Sica in 1946, two years before his more-famous Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) is the story of two boys who have hopes and dreams. It is one of the earliest neo-realist films in Italian cinema, inspired by American film noir and French artistic sensibilities. The two boys, Giuseppe Filippucci (Rinaldo Smordoni) and Pasquale Maggi (Franco Interlenghi) work as shoeshine boys in post-war Rome. 
Pasquale is an orphan who sleeps in an elevator or any other place he can find. Giuseppe, who is younger, has a family.  The boys hope to buy a horse named Bersaglieri – it is their dream and a gateway to a different world. “Not even in America can you find such a horse.”  They save money from their wages and are just a little short – they need 5300 lire – of meeting the seller’s price.  When they buy the horse, they dream, they will stable him and feed him for 300 lire a day.

In the meantime, they have to put up with American GIs who do not pay for shining their shoes and guards who steal their shoe shine boxes and sell it to others. Sometimes a compassionate GI gives the boys a chocolate bar with a gentle warning not to sell it.  The chocolate, the occasional horse rides, the camaraderie with other shoe shine boys – this is their escape.
And then, because of Attilio, Giuseppe’s older brother who’s a small-time crook, they are drawn into the dark world of crime. The boys are asked to sell American blankets to a fortune teller for a small fee. They do so, fixing a price acceptable to all parties. 
While they are having their fortunes told after the deal is fixed, Atillio and his friends burst into the fortune teller’s apartment posing as policemen. The boys are ushered out. They still have the money that the fortune teller gave them for the two blankets. It is enough to cover the remaining cost of buying Bersaglieri.

They buy the horse and parade him among their friends around the city before stabling him.   
They sleep with the horse in the stable. This is their last taste of freedom.  They are accused of stealing 700,000 lire from the fortune teller, arrested and put in a juvenile prison where they are separated from each other.

Sciuscià is an unsentimental look at post-war Italy – the country’s trials as it attempts to build a new nation, the unemployment rates for young men who fought on both sides during the war, the dependence of lower class families on money obtained petty thievery and from the black market. It looks without judgement at the resignation of mothers, their acceptance of having their younger children put into juvenile prison for a while to prevent their older children from getting stiffer sentences, the older children who they believe will be able to take care of the family more than shoeshine boys. It shines a light on the willingness of families to hire lawyers to spin tales so that orphans have stiffer sentences while their own children get away with lighter ones.   

De Sica’s camera looks at juvenile prisons where children are sent by parents so that both do not starve.  Better to be in prison as a vagrant than to end up dead because of lack of food.  Prisons where some officials are brutal and some are compassionate. Where the food is vile but to not eat means death while big crooks eat steaks and courgettes in posh restaurants and plan to send packages of food to children for not ratting on them.  

Prisons where the children are taught multiplication tables so they can recite it when the director comes to see them.  Prisons where children wait for their parents to pick them up.  Children who, as the warden notes, are of ‘no fixed abode’. Prisons where friendships are made and friendships are lost. Where hope is sustained by dreams of a proud beautiful horse cantering free through fields.  
The view in a large part of the film is always framed by iron bars. Those looking through them to the outside, the onlookers looking at those inside.

De Sica builds up characters.  The prison warden who is compassionate and feels for the children locked in prison.  The prison director who feels he has a job to do and does not care how it is done.  The sickly child who waits for his mother to come and release him from prison.  

Pasquale, who is Giuseppe’s protector, but who tells the police what they need to know to prevent Giuseppe from being flogged.  Giuseppe who, not knowing the truth, hates Pasquale for confessing to save his own skin. Giuseppe, who frames Pasquale so that he is flogged.
Arcangeli, a doctor’s son, who is in prison for armed robbery, who becomes Giuseppe’s leader. Arcangeli, who cannot face Pasquale in a one-on-one confrontation. 

The state lawyers who go through the motions for the boys they are supposed to represent. The women in the film, secondary characters always wronged. The mothers, the girl friends, the molls, the statue that represents Justice who the boys feel is Queen Margherita. Little Nannarella, Giuseppe’s friend, who is always the onlooker – when the boys are working, when they are arrested, when they are sentenced, and who screams at the judge and the authorities: “You bastards, you villains!”  Is she Italy weeping for her children?

Last but not the least, Bersaglieri the horse, the thought of losing whom forces Pasquale to teach Giuseppe a lesson. A lesson that ends in tragedy and the loss of hope – or the continuance of it. The last shot in the film is the saddest, as Bersaglieri walks away from a grieving Pasquale.

Has hope gone forever? 

© Sadanand Warrier

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