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Searching for a better life, Rosaria Parondi and her sons Rocco, Simone, Ciro, and Luca, arrive in Milan from their impoverished farm in southern Italy. Recently widowed, Rosaria has come uninvited to join her oldest son, Vincenzo. Although not steadily employed, Vincenzo is engaged to Ginetta, the daughter of a middle-class family, but the engagement causes a rift with Rosaria, and Vincenzo leaves Milan with his fiancée. The Parondis move into a working-class section of the city and begin to experience the difficulties of city life and the pressure of unemployment. Simone, the most ambitious of the brothers, makes a name for himself as a prizefighter and takes Nadia, a disillusioned prostitute, as his mistress; but when he becomes possessive, Nadia tires of him and leaves. Eventually, Rocco is called into military service, and one day he sees Nadia, recently released from prison; the gentleness of Rocco awakens a new hope in her, and she promises to begin a new life. Upon returning to Milan, they find that Ciro has started to work at the Alfa Romeo auto factory and is supporting the family, while Vincenzo and Ginetta have returned to the city. Simone, who has turned to petty crime, learns that Rocco and Nadia are lovers and decides to take revenge. He brutally rapes Nadia while a group of fellow hoodlums forces Rocco to watch. Blaming himself for his brother's despair, Rocco persuades Nadia to return to Simone. Rocco, unable to find employment, enters professional boxing and goes to live with Vincenzo and Ginetta. Simone, evicted from his hotel, goes back to his mother, taking Nadia with him, but Nadia has returned to her former ways, and Rosaria soon throws her out. At the depths of despair, Simone cajoles money from his brothers and cavorts with his homosexual boxing patron, whom he robs. Rocco then signs a 10-year boxing contract in order to repay Simone's patron. The same day that Rocco wins his first fight, Simone finds Nadia, and when she rejects him again, he stabs her to death. At the family celebration of Rocco's victory, Simone confesses to Nadia's murder. The family, though shocked and grief-stricken, tries to protect Simone, but Ciro turns him over to the police. Luca, the youngest brother, cannot understand this act of betrayal; Ciro, now ostracized by the family, explains that Simone was doomed and that all of them were responsible. As he leaves his little brother, Ciro hopes that Luca, the only one still uncorrupted by city life, will return to the country where the Parondis' roots still lie.