Everybody loves this film! Seven reviews and all five stars! My crash course in the Italian Neorealismo, which has me watching a classic from the 1940s or '50s every evening, has revealed plenty of disagreement among reviewers about the merits of the tougher films, those that expose the harshness and degradation of lower class life. I guess it should be no surprise that the radical Pier Paolo Pasolini would draw fire; after all, he was murdered by rightwing extremists. But Vittorio de Sica was no radical, and this film is politically innocuous. It's the story of two boys who are earning money shining shoes in American-occupied Italy near the end of World War 2. One boy, the older, is an orphan. The younger boy, his friend, has an intact family with a grown-up brother. That big brother involves the two unsuspecting boys in a robbery; the boys are no angels, of course, and they 'think' they are merely delivering stolen American army blankets to a fence. The resourceful boys have been hoarding their money to buy a horse, and the earnings of their delivery complete the selling price. But joy is brief; the boys are nabbed, questioned, and jailed. Neither of them will 'squeal' on the big brother and his associates. Most of the film is set in a boys' penitentiary that looks like half abandoned church and half Alcatraz. The scenes in the pen are pure Charles Dickens, funny, pitiful, melodramatic in turn. "Prison makes good boys bad and bad boys worse." That's hardly a radical revelation.... and then the ending is an effective tear-jerker, which I won't disclose.
In other words, this is "neorealism" with a fairly conventional face. A sentimental film about boys in a destructive environment. The police, teh wardens, the judges, and the lawyers are all despicable, sadistic martinets. Who could call that either "new" or radical? But it's a good piece of film-making despite its thin content. The boys, not professional actors, are amazingly convincing, both in speech and in movement, which one has to credit to the directorial craft of Vittorio de Sica. The script is tight; in fact, it was nominated for a separate Oscar for screen-writing. The black-and-white photography is crisp and elegant, and this restoration from 2001 has captured its visual beauties. So it seems that "neorealismo" wasn't incompatible with fairly straightforward entertainment.