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It’s thanks to Italian neorealist director Vittorio De Sica — the genius behind such films as 1948’s The Bicycle Thief and 1970’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis — that the Academy Awards has a best international film category. That’s because his 1946 film Shoeshine (or in Italian, Sciuscià, the Neapolitan pronunciation of the English word) was awarded a special foreign-language Oscar in 1948. (De Sica won again in 1950 for Bicycle Thief. But it wasn’t until 1956 that the category, then known as best foreign-language film, became competitive, with multiple nominees; after that, he won in 1965 for Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and in 1972 for Finzi-Continis.)
Honing motifs he’d later explore in Bicycle Thief, De Sica mined great drama and pathos in Shoeshine by chronicling the difficult lives of Italy’s post-World War II working class. Shoeshine follows young Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni) and Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi), two best friends who dream of buying their own horse with their meager earnings from polishing shoes on the streets of Rome. That plan gets them roped into a scheme to sell blankets to a fortune-teller that goes awry and lands them behind bars. It ends in tragedy, as such things do.
The screenplay was written by De Sica contemporary Cesare Zavattini, a former journalist and novelist who had a superb eye for accurate detail (many of the plot points in Shoeshine were pulled from real life). While the film is hailed as a masterpiece now, Shoeshine was largely ignored in Italy upon its release; Italians, still very depressed from the war, preferred getting lost in Hollywood musicals over having to see their dreary lives reflected back at them on movie screens. But in Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles, cinephiles marveled at the new genre, filled with nonprofessional actors depicting poor people’s lives in natural lighting.
David O. Selznick offered to back the follow-up, Bicycle Thief, on the condition that Cary Grant play the lead. De Sica politely declined and financed the movie himself. He died in 1974 while undergoing lung cancer surgery in Paris. He was 73.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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