“When Shoeshine opened in 1947, I went to see it alone after one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, ‘Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie.’ I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel? […] Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings.” - Pauline Kael, KPFA broadcast, 1961
Pauline Kael’s review of Vittorio de Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) is one of her best-known and most oft-quoted pieces, because it serves as a good example of how passionate her writing could be when a movie excited her—and also how powerfully rhetorical she could be in voicing her opinions. Her passion for a movie like Shoeshine is so deep, and her contempt for those who don’t share it so harsh, that you’re almost afraid to disagree with her. (Many people complained throughout her career that Kael’s tone was too bullying, too divisive.) She’s probably right to lash out at that college girl, who by her account sounds like an airhead. But she could also make you feel like an airhead, too, if you didn’t love a movie as deeply as she did. The personal touch she displays here was also crucial to her appeal, and a radical departure from the humorless newspaperman’s style of a Bosley Crowther. It was rare in those days for critics to write in the first person, let alone mention personal anecdotes such as a lover’s quarrel.
She liked the off-hand, unpolished quality of Shoeshine, its messiness. “It is one of those rare works of art which seem to emerge from the welter of human experience without smoothing away the raw edges, or losing what most movies lose—the sense of confusion and accident in human affairs.” De Sica’s film follows two orphaned boys in post-war Italy as they’re sent to a juvenile reformatory, and shows, with a sense of poignant helplessness, how they’re turned against one another by the manipulative and unsympathetic justice system. One of the classics of Italian neo-realism, Shoeshine is heart-rending without being overly sentimental or didactic, and Kael liked that about it: “the greatness of Shoeshine is in that feeling we get of human emotions that have not been worked-over and worked into something […] we receive something more naked, something that pours out of the screen.” It’s instructive to compare her response to this film, which critiques Italian society’s treatment of impoverished “juvenile delinquents,” with the kind of social protest espoused by Salt of the Earth. Where that film subordinated art to politics, Shoeshine lets the politics come out of the art. In Kael’s words, “it is a social protest film that rises above its purpose.”