Criterion Collection · Drama · Italy

#201: Umberto D. (1952)

Criterion Challenge #201
Umberto D.

1952 // Italy
Spine #201
DVD Release: Jul 22, 2003
Blu-ray Release: Sep 4, 2012

UMBERTO D. was a commercial failure when it was released in 1952, but in the latest Sight and Sound critics poll conducted in 2012, UMBERTO D. was voted as the 235th greatest film of all time, which is a highly regarded complement indeed. Being hailed by many critics as Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece and one of the finest example of Italian nerorealism movement after World War II, UMBERTO D. can’t overcome the shadow of BICYCLE THIEVES (1948), another, and even better, neorealist masterpiece from De Sica. It may not be practical to compare which one is better. Nonetheless, one has to admit BICYCLE THIEVES is a better-known and more influential film in general. I sob in watching BICYCLE THIEVES, and each subsequent viewing is as powerful as the previous one. Yet, it’s a shame for me to admit that I can’t find the same kind of emotional connection in UMBERTO D.

I can account for two reasons that why I’m deprived of the intense feeling towards Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), the protagonist of UMBERTO D. Firstly, the man is old and I’m not, the lack of life experience and maturity in myself did affect my point of view on Umberto. The film scrupulously avoids his details in the past, all we know is that he worked as a civil servant for the Ministry for over 30 years, and has lived in the same apartment for 20. He has no relatives (but did he?), and now lives by with the pension only. I believe the past shapes a person into who he is right now, his mistakes or merits have to be taken into account for explaining his current status. In Umberto, I see a neat, clean and well-mannered gentleman who believes in righteousness and dignity, and probably well-educated and well-nourished in youth. Much of the characteristic described above may come from the fact that Carlo Battisti, the man who personified Umberto, was actually a linguistic Professor.

The choice of using non-professional actors and real locations are essential in pursing the “truth” the neorealists believed in, as a result, we don’t see the past haunting a old man as presented in WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957) by Ingmar Bergman, because it’s all only a dream. What I see in UMBERTO D. is the “world against individual” situation, the responsibility of Umberto past behavior is lost behind the misfortune and cruelty he experienced from the Government, and notably the landlady. Did he lose his hard-earned money and saving just by paying the rent and feeding himself and the dog? Or would there be any misconduct that used up all his money? Maybe misfortunes like the wars and sickness? The screenplay by the long collaborator Cesare Zavattini and Vittorio De Sica is not interested in explaining itself but blame the world. I don’t think Umberto is a saint, but I also don’t believe he deserves anything that happened to him. I truly sympathy with him, but the lack of personal reflection from Umberto is what troubles me the most throughout the entire film.
In the second half of the film, the relationship between Umberto and his dog Flike becomes the center of the whole plot. Two of the most powerful sequence in the film also involves the dog. The first one occurred after Umberto was discharged from the hospital, he found his dog is missing. This leads to the scene inside the “lost dog shelter” where unclaimed dogs are killed in gas chamber while claiming your lost dog needs money. The subsequent moment of reunion between Umberto and Flike is masterfully executed with unflinching sentimentality and emotional impact. A similar theme and concept can be found in a recent Hungarian film WHITE GOD (2014), which focuses more from the point-of-view of a dog.

After being unwillingly evicted from the place he lives for 20 years, Umberto’s attempts to leave his beloved dog to capable hands, but the futility just bought him frustration and further despair. At the end, he intends to jump in front of an incoming train together with Flike, this sequence is played as direct, honest and unsurprisingly powerful and disturbing. However, all the fuss with Flike appeared underwhelming in occasion, even the hopeful last scene seems over-stretching to me. I can’t deny the fact that I have no long term experience with dogs or pets affects my judgment. Don’t get me wrong, I do sympathy with Umberto, and admire him and Flike mutual love and loyalty. But rather than resonate with this intriguing but personally alienated human-dog relationship, I appreciate more on the interaction between Umberto and Maria (Maria Pia Casilio), the maid of his landlady.

Maria Pia Casilio was a non-professional actress as well, UMBERTO D. was her debut feature. Maria’s commonness, fragility and honesty made her the closest friend to Umberto. They both live under the same roof and suffer from the landlady’s selfishness, naturally they have only each other to talk to. The subplot of Maria and the two soldiers-in-training who may or may not be the father of her unborn child is underused, though truly reflects the passive role women played in pregnancy at that period of time. Italy in 50s was not as grim as what we saw in ROME, OPEN CITY (1945), but a single teenage girl who bears a child would definitely lose her job, in Maria’s case, her living place too. The scene where Maria wakes up and does her morning routine in the kitchen is done in a long take without dialogue, cutting with the close-up while her eyes are filled with tears. Minimalistic but natural, this scene preceded the harshness in MOUCHETTE (1967) and the repetition of mundane life in JEANNE DIELMAN, 23, QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (1975).

When the film ends in a relatively high note, the future of Umberto is still uncertain, and humanity is not yet regained. But there is a glimpse of happiness in the reconciliation between Umberto and Flike, and there’s all that we need to hold on to until the miracle happens. For the present moment, UMBERTO D. will be forever remembered and cherished as a testimony of cinematic power.

Film score: 4.5/5

Supplement: 2.5/5

The only supplements in the blu-ray are a one-hour documentary on De Sica and a short interview with Maria Pia Casilio, not much but worth watching. But the sad news is some writings and essays included in the DVD are not transferred to the blu-ray, if one needs a definitive version, he would need to have both.

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