Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 drama Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) is regarded by critics as one of the great masterpieces of the Italian neo-realist cinema. Two years earlier, he directed Sciuscià (Shoeshine), which focuses on the disintegration of a friendship between two Italian youths who fall victim to the state’s juvenile detention system. Shoeshine deals with a pair of children living on the street, best friends who shine shoes for a living and whose greatest dream is to buy a horse. Pasquale, the older boy, and Giuseppe, the younger, are drawn into a situation they don’t quite understand the weight of. One day Giuseppe’s older brother, Attilio, visits the two boys while they are shining shoes. Attilio tells Pasquale that Panza (a fence) has some work for them.
Panza gives them two fine American blankets to sell to an old lady. Attilio and Panza would come up later passing as cops to steal the poor woman. Given enough money to buy the horse, the kids live the happiest moments of their lives. Later the kids get arrested for stealing blankets. Surprisingly, despite their age and how non-serious their crime appeared to be, the two are dealt with very harshly and are sent to a juvenile prison.
The bulk of Shoeshine takes place behind bars, where the boys have their friendship tested. De Sica shows the juvenile detention system as a rough social order. The cells are overcrowded, five kids to a room, with each sphere becoming its own little gang. The film is considered one of the first Italian neorealist works which would leave a lasting mark on Italian cinema. The form contends with economic hardship and moral deprecation as a canvas. Many times they would shoot in and around the streets of Italian cities and even hire non-professional actors to intensify the realism. With location shooting, long takes, fast black and white film stock, Desica demonstrates that Italian society and its social institutions—have no interest in the “common man.” As Orson Welles said “The camera disappeared, the screen disappeared, it was just life.”