Two friends, Giuseppe Filippucci (Rinaldo Smordoni) and Pasquale Maggi (Franco Interlenghi), test-ride horses. It is their dream to own one for themselves. Though they are saving to purchase a horse, it is difficult for them to afford one, as they are only living off their income from shining shoes in the streets of Rome.
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. Pasquale brings Giuseppe along to meet Panza, who gives them two fine American blankets to sell. Giuseppe and Pasquale bring the blankets to a fortune teller, who buys them from the boys after some negotiation. After the sale, Panza, Attilio, and another man bust into the fortune teller's house, posing as policemen. They accuse the fortune teller of handling stolen goods, and finding Giuseppe and Pasquale, force them out and pretend to take them into custody. Attilio tells the boys to go away and keep quiet, letting them keep the blanket money (2,800 lira) as well as 3,000 additional lira. With this money, the boys realize they have enough to finally buy a horse.
After purchasing their horse and spending a great deal of time riding it, the boys return to the city. There the real police, accompanied by the fortune teller, bring them into the precinct for questioning. The police accuse the boys of stealing over 700,000 lira from the fortune teller's home, which obviously was stolen by Panza and Attilio, posing as the policemen. The boys deny all charges and do not mention their knowledge of the three true con men. Giuseppe and Pasquale are sent to a juvenile detention center.
On arrival, Giuseppe and Pasquale are separated. The detention center is divided into three levels/rows of cells with 5 boys in each. Giuseppe is placed in a cell on the second floor, and Pasquale is placed in a cell on the first floor. The two boys try to remain in contact, but are frequently stifled by the prison guards. They each make new acquaintances in their respective cells.
Giuseppe receives a package from his mother filled with food. He tries to share it with Pasquale, still in his cell on the first floor, but he is stopped. Giuseppe instead shares it with his fellow inmates in his own cell. As the meal begins, Arcangeli, one of Giuseppe's fellow inmates returning from solitary confinement, finds a note in a piece of the bread Giuseppe shares. It is from Attilio's boss, and it instructs him not to expose his brother and comrades regarding the con. Giuseppe informs Pasquale; they both agree to abide by the note and not to divulge the truth.
Later, the boys are called into the police chief's office for questioning. The two boys remain defiant, repeating that they are innocent and know nothing of the charges. Frustrated, the police chief threatens to beat the information out of them. Another policeman takes Giuseppe into a side room to beat him, while Pasquale watches from a distance through a doorway. Hidden from Pasquale's view, Giuseppe is taken out of that room and back to his cell, while another child poses as Giuseppe's screaming voice. The policeman proceeds to flay a sandbag, while the child belts out false screams. Pasquale, thinking his friend was in unbearable pain, finally admits the names of Panza and Attilio to the police chief.
Upon returning to his cell, Pasquale runs up to the second floor to check on Giuseppe. Pasquale finds his friend unscathed, but doesn't tell Giuseppe what happened. Giuseppe discovers that Pasquale confessed when his mother visits him and reveals that Attilio, his brother, has been informed on. Giuseppe is angry and confronts Pasquale in front of the other inmates, calling him a spy. Giuseppe's cellmates stand up for him and line up against Pasquale.
A file is planted in Pasquale's cell and Pasquale is flogged. An attempt is made to reconcile Giuseppe and Pasquale, but Arcangeli intercedes, fighting with Pasquale and losing. When Arcangeli returns to the cell, he tells of an escape plan.
At their official court hearing, Giuseppe and Pasquale are respectively sentenced to one and two years in prison. Giuseppe commits to Arcangeli's escape plan, pledging to supply money once they escape. While a movie is being projected in the prison, they make their escape. They are discovered, but manage to escape, causing a prison riot and fire in the process. One of Pasquale's friends is trampled to death in the riot.
Pasquale tells the police chief where the escapees went, and leads them there. He leads them to the stable, but they have already escaped. Pasquale runs off and finds Giuseppe and Arcangeli riding on their horse across a bridge. They dismount and Arcangeli flees, but Giuseppe stays. Pasquale takes off his belt and starts to flog Giuseppe. Giuseppe falls off the bridge and hits his head on the rocks below. Pasquale cries over his fallen friend's body as the police arrive on the scene.Franco Interlenghi as Pasquale Maggi
Rinaldo Smordoni as Giuseppe Filippucci
Annielo Mele as Raffaele
Bruno Ortenzi as Arcangeli
Emilio Cigoli as Staffera
Maria Campi as Palmist (uncredited)
Shoeshine is among the first of the Italian neorealist films. In 1948, it received an Honorary Award at the Academy Awards for its high quality. This award was the precursor of what would later become the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The film inspired a comic book series, Sciuscià, which run from 1949 to 1956.