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Umberto D.: The Criterion Collection

No filmmaker thrived more ecstatically within the parameters of Italian Neorealism than Vittorio De Sica, the brilliant actor turned even more brilliant director who contributed to the highly influential, if short-lived, movement four of its most enduring works: Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief, Miracle in Milan, and — the most heart wrenching of them all — Umberto D. These films all featured non-professional actors and were shot on-location in the blasted, postwar streets of a miserable, poverty-stricken Italy. For De Sica, they were a reaction to, in the director's words, the "collective cauterization of emotion" prevalent in the country; ergo, by placing his slender narratives knee-deep in the raw despair of everyday life, he was using the medium to call attention to the struggles of his desperate countrymen. Unfortunately, by 1952, audiences had wearied of this stridently conscientious brand of cinema, while the novelty of the style's immediacy had, through repetition, lost its ability to captivate critics (it wouldn't be long before the French New Wave would adopt the basic tenets of Neorealism, muss it up a little, and subsequently turn the film world on its ear). For these reasons, Umberto D. was a massive flop, effectively killing the movement in one fell strike, and relegating the film itself to relative obscurity as a lesser work in De Sica's oeuvre. Only recently, thanks in part to Martin Scorsese and his filmic travelogue of Italian cinema, Il Mio viaggio in Italia, has the film been rediscovered by modern-day critics, who not only regard it as a classic in its own right, but as perhaps the ne plus ultra of De Sica's phenomenal career. The title is an abbreviation for the film's main character, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), an elderly pensioner who is perhaps the loneliest man to ever occupy the screen. His sole companion is an expressive mutt named Flike, with whom he lives in a decrepit boarding house where he is continually nagged for back rent by a snobbish and cruel landlady/madam who rents out Umberto's room by the hour to illicit paramours. Also taking up residence in the apartment building is the housemaid Maria (Maria Pia Casilio), an unwed mother-to-be who is the only non-canine sympathetic to Umberto's struggles. But while they're fond of each other, there is no depth to their relationship beyond one of mutual commiseration. Besides, due to their poverty, there is very little they can do for one another; Umberto's most pressing concern is to pay his 15,000 lire debt to his landlady, which she refuses to accept piecemeal. But all Umberto can do is sell his most valuable possessions, and one imagines he's down to the dregs of these items. Compounding his misery, and likely stemming from his frenzied activity, the old man catches a case of tonsillitis that lands him in the hospital — a not unwelcome turn of events, as his lodgings there, including free meals, are probably far preferable to eking out his living on the streets. But while he's convalescing, Flike, whom Umberto left in Maria's care, disappears, leading to a desperate search that ends at the city pound, where De Sica ratchets up the viewer's anxiety to match Umberto's by highlighting every perilous end that the dog could've met. After a few excruciating minutes, however, Flike turns up, and the pair are happily reunited; a warmth that quickly freezes over when Umberto returns to find his room torn to pieces. With his eviction imminent, Umberto resolves to find Flike a home, setting up one of the most heartbreaking final acts in film history.

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In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Umberto D. would've been a blunt instrument of unearned sentimentality, but De Sica's profound interest in the intricacies of human behavior precludes even the slightest hint of such shamelessness. It's important to remember that, while Neorealism sought to capture the gritty everyday-ness of Postwar Italy, De Sica was a master of shot composition and, most crucially, comedic staging, where he compared favorably to the likes of Chaplin (cf., Umberto's failed foray into begging). Some have viewed this measured technique as a betrayal of the movement's pseudo-documentary aspirations, but that is to miss the point entirely. Indeed, Charges that De Sica's works are somehow hampered by their contrived narratives seem broad and poorly considered when one realizes that he's using the ordinary and the banal to make the plight of the underclass tangible. And none of his films bear this out more triumphantly than Umberto D., where De Sica lingers on life's little indignities (e.g. the protracted sequence in which Umberto frantically goes vendor to vendor outside of the dog pound, ultimately purchasing an overpriced glass just to break a large bill so that he can pay a taxi fare he can already ill-afford) to engender not pity, but empathy for his downtrodden protagonist. But while the state's discarding of Umberto and his elderly brethren is certainly a concern for De Sica, the depth of his outrage stems from what the director called a "lack of human solidarity", and even his main character is not above criticism for his own selfish tendencies. In Umberto D., De Sica mourns not the unjust ignominy of old age, but the death of human compassion and the willingness to authentically communicate with those around us. When, in the end, it is a victory that that most basic trust between man and dog has been reestablished, it's not difficult to infer that, in De Sica's estimation, the more complicated relationship between man and man is positively doomed. It is difficult to imagine a time when a filmmaker has been more brutally honest with his audience. Criterion presents Umberto D. in an excellent full-screen transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include a condensed history of the filmmaker titled "That's Life: Vittorio De Sica" (55 min.), in which the charming director himself gives the viewer a first-hand account of his illustrious career, aided by clips of his films and various interviews culled from premieres, television appearances, and behind-the-scenes features. There also are a number of essays on the film by film critic Stuart Klawans of The Nation, Umberto Eco, Luisa Alessandri, Carlo Battisti, and a reprinted remembrance from De Sica himself. Also on board is a new interview with actress Maria Pia Casilio (12 min.), who made her screen debut in Umberto D. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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