Two shoeshine boys in postwar Rome, Italy, save up to buy a horse, but their involvement as dupes in a burglary lands them in juvenile prison where the experience take a devastating toll on their friendship.
At a track near Rome, shoeshine boys are watching horses run. Two of the boys, the orphan Pasquale and his younger friend Giuseppe, are riding. The pair have been saving to buy a horse of their own to ride. The boys meet Attilio, Giuse's much older brother, and his shady friend at a boat on the Tiber. In return for a commission, the boys agree to deliver black market goods to a fortune-teller. Once the woman has paid, Attilio's gang suddenly arrives, pretending to be cops, to shake the woman down. With a payoff from Attilio, the boys are able to make the final payment and stable their horse in Trastevere over the river. The fortune-teller identifies Pasqua and Giuse. Held at an overcrowded boys' prison, they are separated. Giuse falls under the influence of an older lad in his cell, Arcangeli. During interrogation, Pasqua is tricked into betraying Giuse's brother to the police. With their trial still in the future, the two friends are driven further apart.Written by
"Sciuscia", the rallying cry of a stolen childhood and the heart-breaking epitaph of a destroyed friendship ...
"Sciuscia" one word carrying the poignant context of a devastating story, as the Italianization of the word 'Shoeshine', the name given to the little 'ragazzi' who shined GI's boots for a living. We're in 1945, when Italy was still recovering from the ashes of WWII.
In one title, the tone is set, in an impoverished Italy, the main protagonists are all children carrying in their hands and hearts the hope of a slow rebirth. This light of hope is even conveyed in the opening scene when two kids, two friends, Pasquale and Giuseppe ride horses in the middle of a forest under a bright sunshine. Their fetish-horse is a white one, the fastest one, named Bersagliere, and both dream of owning him. Like in "Bicycle Thieves" or "Umberto D." the simplest things make the most inspirational statements about humanity, a bicycle is synonym of hope, a little dog is the only companionship an old man can dream of, in "Sciuscia", the horse is the dream, the exhilarating feeling of freedom inhabiting Pasquale and Giuseppe's hearts and the cement of a seemingly unbreakable friendship.
Friendship, if anything, "Sciuscia" is the heart-warming story of a friendship, before it would turn into the heart-breaking chronicle of its destruction, all the more tragic because both couldn't foresee their lives without each other, and De Sica doesn't need to make it said, it's obvious. Pasquale is an orphan who lives in Giuseppe's home and while Giuseppe, younger and more immature, complains about having to give part of his 'shoeshine' money to his family, Pasquale wished he had a family to give money to. These boys have hopes, dreams, principles and even an innocence that haven't been undermined yet by a tragic turn of events. Unfortunately, Giuseppe has an older brother Attilio, who works for a fence named Panza, Attilio incarnates the eventual danger that Giuseppe might end like him and it's not coincidental that we meet him when Giuseppe talks to his child love, a pretty little girl who becomes, at that moment, the last link to childhood before the irreparable would be committed.
As I said, "Sciuscia" carries the whole story in its title, it was in 1945, the GI were still here, and while the political authority was in reconstruction, many Italians made money through Black Market. Giuseppe and Pasquale were given a mission: to sell some US blankets to an old-lady, unknowing that Attilio and Panza would come up later passing as cops to steal the poor woman. Given enough money to buy the horse, they'll live the happiest parenthesis of their lives, riding Bersagliere, an exciting state of grace interrupted when they're questioned by the cops regarding the stealing of the old lady's money. Refusing to break the Omerta, and having no proof against them, both kids agree not to talk and patiently spend their time in the juvenile detention center.
"Sciuscia" turns into a powerful social commentary about juvenile delinquency as the only desperate answer to difficult economical conditions, when kids were put in the same trunk with prostitutes, when some were forced to steal to nourish their family. As the trunk leaves the street, both Giuseppe and Pasquale are precociously leaving childhood, incarnated by the little girl who follows the trunk. And the center is filmed with a documentary-like style that finds the right tone between pathos and cold realism, De Sica trusts our intelligence enough not to portray the kids as little angels, some of them lie, frighten the newcomers, provoke fights, but some others are indeed victim of cruelly sad circumstances and a slow bureaucracy, like the kid named Rafaelle who can't be put in a sanatorium despite a severe lung-condition. Even the administrators are not all one-dimensional, they're men who went through Fascism, a war, and only use violence because disorder would be much worse.
Fatally, Pasquale and Giuseppe have their friendships affected by their detention, starting at the moment they're sent in different cells: their cries and shouts, the way they keep their hands hooked to each other is an extraordinary display of desperate need to be together. Their separation only exposes them to the worst, to the influence of their respective groups that would slowly and progressively drive them apart. And it starts at the pivotal moment of the film when one of the guards pretends to hit Giuseppe to force Pasquale to talk, it's out of his love that Pasquale breaks his premise, and starts the turn of events that will destroy their friendship. Giuseppe will think of Pasquale as a snitch who sold his brother, and as revenge, sets him up in return, putting a deathblow on their friendship.
It's impossible to describe with words the tragic path the movie takes, and its extreme realism only makes it worse. If "Bicycle Thieves" is regarded as one of the saddest films ever, there still is an imperceptible light of hope at the end. In "Sciuscia", the film doesn't have a sad score, the main theme is the joyful riddle-like music of the white horse that reminds of childhood's insouciance but God, it cruelly contrasts with the slow transformation that involves the two protagonists, even physical, the loss of innocence is one thing, but what can be sadder than a destroyed friendship. Killing the myth of the friendship built behind the bars, the film demonstrates how authority, bureaucracy, order can annihilate the most beautiful aspects of humanity, and finally how fragile are the most beautiful virtues.
But I wonder if it's not sadder than the film itself, that one of the greatest masterpieces of Italian neo-realism, a movie I knew about through Scorsese's documentary about his Italian influence and Pauline Kael's review, has only 14 reviews (counting mine) while "The Avengers" already has 1207. One thing for sure, no last minute of a film haunted me as much as in "Sciuscia", while I desperately looked for something to keep my faith on humanity.
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