De Sica - and possibly all of Italian cinema - is best known for Bicycle Thieves, his neo-realist masterpiece that for the casual film lover is the pinnacle of the movement. But the actor had actually directed a fair number of films before that, and The Children Are Watching Us was perhaps the most notable of them; it marked the first time De Sica collaborated with Bicycle Thieves screenwriter Cesare Zavatinni.
Aside from the children's perspective from which the film's plot unfolds, however, there are only brief flashes of the director's later work in The Children Are Watching Us. The film is fundamentally a melodrama, focusing on a woman who has begun an illicit affair and must choose between her husband and child and her new love. But the film's use of the child as the main protagonist is more than just a clever take on this common (at least outside of fascist WWII Italy) story. It allows the viewer a new perspective that examines the victims of love conquering all. The film's position is a fundamentally conservative one, and it's an authentic one, even if it's somewhat obvious. I don't think anyone who will watch this movie has never heard "Think of the children!" before, but De Sica manages to cover this territory in a moving and genuine way. I was especially happy that he chose not to demonize the mother, but instead depict just how difficult her decisions were for her. I was able to avoid hating her at the end while understanding completely - and even being happy about - what her son does to her.
One interesting thing I learned from the Criterion Reflections post on this film is that this is the first Italian film in the collection (not counting Eclipse, perhaps). This is extremely interesting for a number of reasons. Italy is part of the Big Five: US, England, Japan, France and Italy make up something like 90% of the films in the collection. So the first film by such a significant player in cinema is very relevant. But this specific film so clearly has vital connections to Italy's past and future equally - the very fact that it was directed by De Sica, who was still mostly known as an actor but would go on to be considered one of the country's greatest directors, is a testament to this point. The film's technique and themes straddle the line between the melodrama that was Italy's meat and potatoes even during Mussolini's reign and the post-WWII everyman neo-realist movement of Rosselini and De Sica himself. The Children Are Watching Us is not a movie that can be fully understood out of context. The fact that it's still a worthy addition to the collection speaks to De Sica's skill.