De Sica has described his film as “a fable for children - especially of the grown-up variety - a comedy with an undercurrent of tragedy”. The title he originally wanted was The Poor are Disturbing, but the producer preferred the present version.
The importance and originality of the film lies in its successful combining of fantastic and realistic elements and yet managing to be a satire on social conditions rather than a mere comedy.
The plot, like most of Zavattini's stories, is very simple. It is the story of Toto, born under a cauliflower, who, after leaving an orphanage, settles in the suburbs of Milan, in a village composed of little huts set up by the poor on private ground not yet exploited for building.
Toto with his simple-minded and fairy-tale goodness, is the centre and soul of the village.
One day, oil is discovered in the district, and of course the new owner of the land wants to drive out the poor. In the midst of their dramatic struggle to defend their homes, the old lady who found and adopted Toto as a baby comes down from heaven and gives him a dove which, simply by being held in his hand, can work miracles.
Now all the wishes of the village come true. Toto sends the invaders away and sets to work to fulfil ail the simple, childish desires of his friends. All of them, or almost all, ask for useless things, small superfluous things that, through novelty, bring joy to the life of the humble.
But the power of the dove works only for a time. After a dreamlike night, the invaders return next morning and carry off the poor people with all their new, miraculously acquired possessions. The old lady, however, comes back from heaven and gives Toto his dove again: the police cars in which the poor are being taken away fall to pieces, and Toto and his friends, borrowing brooms from the street cleaners, soar above the city en route to a better and happier place than this world.
Such are the bare bones of the fable, transfigured by de Sica, without slipping into sentimentality, into a moving and beautiful film. Though the construction may not be totally perfect and some of the trick work not entirely successful, there is a wonderful unity and sureness in the first part of the film which remains unflawed by the congestion of later passages.
The sensitive camera work of Graziati captures the innocence and purity of line in the faces of the leading players and the musical score by Cicognini matches the visuals and mood and perfectly sets off this unusual fantasy.