The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has given out their Oscar Awards since 1929, but until 1947 no film made in another country had been honored. Then they started giving out Special Honorary Awards to films that were “primarily non-English-speaking.” They were not competitive, there was no slate of five nominees. The Academy members just selected one. It wasn’t until 1956 that they became like the other categories. Italy and France have won by far the most Oscars, at 14 and 12 respectively. All the other countries of the world combined have won a total of 43.
This was the first selection. It was only a year after the end of WWII, and Italy was still recovering. Vittorio de Sica and others were establishing what came to be called Italian Neorealism. And if you’ve ever seen Bicycle Thieves (Ladri de biciclette,) another De Sica film made two years later, you know just how devastatingly real realism can be. So real it can actually hurt. This one is not quite as good as the later one, but it’s pretty damn good. Two young shoeshine boys in Rome, best friends, want to buy a horse. They save up the money, but then are roped into a scheme selling stolen American blankets. They end up in juvenile prison, which isn’t quite as bad as a British Dickensian workhouse, but it’s pretty bad. You just sort of know things will end badly, and you won’t be surprised when I tell you that they do. That’s all you really need to know about the plot. It is regarded as De Sica’s first masterpiece (he made a ton of them), and I totally agree. Cinema just doesn’t get much better than this.
The younger boy, Guiseppe, was played by Rinaldo Smordoni, who is still alive but only made three movies, all in the ‘40s. The older boy, Pasquale, was played by Franco Interlenghi, who had a very long career with several hundred appearances. He worked right up to 2010, and died in 2015. He was as well-known a romantic star as Marcello Mastrioanni in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but never really made a reputation beyond Italy.