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With: Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Ileana Simova, Elena Rea, Memmo Carotenuto
Written by: Cesare Zavattini
Directed by: Vittorio De Sica
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Italian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 88
Date: 01/20/1952

Umberto D. (1952)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Man and His Dog

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Of the Italian directors who created works of Neo-Realism after WWII, Vittorio De Sica is perhaps the most prominent and the most troublesome. His Bicycle Thieves (1948) is arguably the pinnacle of Neo-Realism, the most powerful, effective, and famous film from that time and place. But after it, when Neo-Realism inevitably began to wane, De Sica seemed to have the toughest time making a transition to something new. His colleagues -- Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti, etc. -- continued along paths that corresponded to their personalities, but De Sica moved toward impersonal entertainments, going to Hollywood, becoming the go-to director for international star Sophia Loren, and becoming a favorite of Oscar voters.

Yet there's no denying De Sica's pure skill at filmmaking. His sexy comedy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow is, in its own way, every bit as effective as Bicycle Thieves, and so is that awkward middle film, Umberto D., made after Neo-Realism was over, but still dabbling in its heartbreaking cinematic effects. (The film received an Oscar nomination for its screenplay.)

Carlo Battisti, who would have been about sixty, stars as Umberto Domenico Ferrari, and it was apparently his only film appearance. He gives a strong, dignified performance, but it's clear that he's not a star. In his little hat and moustache he somewhat resembles Charlie Chaplin in long shots, but in close-up, the camera just doesn't love his face. He's definitely just one of the many members of suffering humanity.

Umberto is retired and living on a pension, which isn't enough to cover his rent, plus meals, plus food for his little mongrel dog Flike. His landlady is a gold-digger, looking to show off her apartments and marry someone who can provide for her. For her, Umberto is a distasteful hanger-on, a memory of when things were bad just after the war. The young maid, Maria (Maria Pia Casilio) -- who is pregnant by one of two soldiers -- still likes him, though, and provides moral support, even if she can't help in any practical way.

In the movie, Umberto tries to raise money for his rent, becomes sick, and checks into the free clinic. Flike runs away and must be found. Then, when Umberto returns home, the landlady has already started tearing down his walls to make a new living room. He packs his things, and considers suicide, but must first decide what to do with Flike. In the end, man and dog are together in a temporary moment of happiness.

De Sica lays down his stark materials, his plotless story, his actual locations, and his untrained actors, and films them as if it were a glossy Hollywood melodrama. Little moments resonate with an unexpected power, far more so than if we had been watching a documentary about this same man. Umberto struggles with his pride, trying to figure out what lines he can cross to take care of his needs without giving up his dignity. He lies many times, even to strangers, so as not to lose a dollop of it.

Interestingly, over the course of the film, we see several younger people who have absolutely no qualms about lowering themselves. Umberto comes from an older time, and all of his training and knowledge have become useless in this new time. What good is his pride now? But even though Umberto is unable to connect fully with any other human beings -- not even Maria, with whom he parts on a lie -- he still loves his little dog unconditionally. Flike is the key to the movie. Even if it could be seen as a cheap tactic, it's a good and true one.

Indeed, Umberto D. could have been one of the most depressing movies ever made, but instead it's one of the most heartfelt. The Criterion Collection has now updated their 2003 DVD for a new 2012 Blu-ray. The transfer is above average, and lovely for a black-and-white film of this age, and includes an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Extras include an hour-long TV documentary on De Sica, an interview with actress Maria Pia Casilio (recorded for the DVD), and a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by critic Stuart Klawans.

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