There is hardly a moment in the duration of this film where its young star, Edoardo Nevola, is not seen. He was the child performer that had become best known to the Italian public in Pietro Germi's "Il ferroviere" ("The Railroad Man") and "L'uomo di paglia" and he carries this film with pluck and aplomb.
He is Salvatore, nicknamed Pagnotella or "Little Bread-loaf," He flees an orphanage in Caltanisetta, Sicily, in order to try to find his mother, who he thinks is living in Naples. She had left him as an infant. There are echoes from the start of the childhood classic story from De Amicis' "Cuore" entitled "From the Appenines to the Andes." There, similarly, a young boy travels even father and wider to regain his mamma. That other story has been filmed several times.
In the course of his picaresque adventures to find his mother, the boy encounters a large number of folks not unwilling to help him move on or even stay with them if he chooses. This all provides opportunities for cameo roles by various performers.
Before even leaving Sicily, Salvatore befriends Stella, the daughter of a fisherman, who wants to marry Pasquale. Salvatore acts as a go-between for the two lovers. Her parents have another arranged marriage in mind for the girl, but the girl is able to run away and her story is probably a reflection of what Salvatore's own mother once did, only abandoning her kid as well.
Our hero stows away on a ferry to the mainland, hops a train, hitches other rides, avoids the police who may be looking for him. A truck driver, Mario (Francisco Rabal), takes him to Naples. There he spends some time with marionette-theatre operator Gennaro, played to amusing perfection by veteran actor Eduardo De Filippo. He is forever arguing with his wife about the saltiness or lack of salt in the ragù she makes. He enlists Salvatore to provide a marionette-voice for a mother pining for her lost son. The boy gets so carried away by his home-hitting dramaturgy that he upsets the show and decides its time to move on in his quest.
American tourists provide the next lap plus a gift of a jacket and hat which get robbed by a thief, Nando (Mario Carotenuto), who ultimately takes the boy to heart and tries to teach the boy his craft, Fagin-style, and then winds up in jail. Another chance encounter with truck-driver Mario gives the boy his means to get to Milan, where he believes his mother now is. But she's not. She's in Venice. And so it's on to Venice. Finally he finds a woman who claims to be a friend of Carolina, his mom. After waiting an entire movie to see the top-billed star, Alida Valli, we finally get to see her in the movie's last twenty minutes. Surprise! She is, in fact, the boy's mother, living with a man and his ailing daughter. She can no longer hide the fact. Salvatore realizes who she is, and the couple ultimately decide to keep him, much to the boy's tearful delight.
By movie's end it occurred to me that the mother should have been traversing Italy to be re-united with her son and not the other way around! And, furthermore, as a shameful mother who has abandoned her child for a decade, she has a lot of explaining to do to the kid! Yet the film engages one as a pleasant enough sentimental yarn, and the kind of movie that Italian mothers might have been delighted in taking their kids to see in order to teach them that tender proverb, "Di mamme ce n'è una sola"...we have but one mother.
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