Let me say right off that this doesn't measure up to other De Sica classics like The Bicycle Thief or Umberto D. But how many movies can measure up to those? Practically none.
Having gotten that out of the way, I watched this last night, courtesy of my Netflix subscription. It is the story of two young boys in Rome in early adolescence who are sciuscia', or shoeshine kids, in this case for the Allied forces who were still in Rome shortly after the war. They're great pals, the small one and the bigger one. Their dream, which they come very close to achieving, is to buy a horse with the profits from their subservient labor. But they also, through no fault of their own, get caught up in the thriving black market, and are taken to juvenile detention. What follows is a Dickensian tale of child abuse and a denouncement of adults' callousness and unfairness toward youth, and the vulnerable in general.
You will recognize in this De Sica's angry and disconsolate world view. I find that it is an antidote to what many Italians like to believe when they say si stava meglio quando si stava peggio, that is, we were better off when we were worse off. I personally see no redeeming social value in poverty, as the great Dickens realized. The world was just as rotten then, with all sorts of physical privations and hardships to boot.
A note: Franco Interlenghi, the bigger boy, who has an unusually pleasant face, went on to have an important career in movies, including with Fellini in I Vitelloni. The other young actor did not.