In between Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., Vittorio De Sica made this film that usually gets missed or ignored as “not one of De Sica’s best.” It’s a shame that just because it begins with once upon a time and is a fairy tale people dismiss it as fluff or a betrayal to neorealism. In fact, it’s very smart and fairy tales have a lot of realism in them. That’s why we tell them to our children.
The story begins with the an old woman finding a baby in her cabbage patch. One day she comes home and finds that the boy has let a pot boil over and a river of liquid now runs through the room. Instead of getting mad, she puts down her bag, pulls out a box, and starts putting down model homes along the “river”. She dies when he is young and the boy winds up in an orphanage. When he comes out we soon find he is just as lovely and caring as the woman who raised him. His name is Totò.
When a man tries to steal his bag he follows him. The man tells Totò he’s sorry, but he rather liked the bag. So Totò gives him the bag. The man then takes Totò to a undeveloped piece of land where the homeless sleep. Pretty soon Totò begins to organize the homeless and help them to build a shanty town that begins to attract homeless from all over. The people who own the land show up by they decide to leave it alone. That is until while drilling for water the homeless strike oil.
Now the town comes under attack. This is when the fantasy part really kicks in. Totò’s dead mother flies down to earth and brings Totò a dove. As long as he has the dove with him he can make anything happen. He can make the sun rise, give extravagant clothes, and do whatever he needs to protect the town and it’s people.
I saw this film for the first time two years ago in a class on Italian neorealism and it’s still just as wonderful today.