Review by Ed Nguyen
Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Memmo Carotenuto
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Audio: Italian monaural
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.33:1
Features: De Sica documentary, interview with Maria Pia Casilio, essays
Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: July 22, 2003
beings have this primitive, perennial, ancient fault of not understanding one
another, of not communicating with each other.
This is the story of Umberto D."
cinema, by the 1930's and early 1940's, was in a stale downspin.
Once powerful enough to produce epic films on a scale equal to
Hollywood's, the Italian film industry had been crippled by many years of slow
decline as well as the constraints of the Fascist regime of this era.
In 1942, though, all of that changed.
was the year when Luchino Visconti's influential film Ossessione was released. A
loose adaptation of The Postman Always
Rings Twice, it initiated a revival of the former realistic style of Italian
cinema. Although the war atmosphere
prevented neorealism, as the emerging movement was termed, from being recognized
on a worldwide scale, it was quickly blossoming into a new film renaissance in
Italy. As for the rest of the
cinematic world, it would have to wait until 1945, with the release of
Roberto Rossellini's Open City,
before it too could embrace Italian neorealism.
hallmark of the neorealist aesthetic was the visual authenticity of its images.
Set in actual locations and often using nonprofessional actors, the
deglamorized films of this movement reflected the weariness and daily struggles
of the common people. Regular themes included the war and its aftermath - poverty,
joblessness, and despair. The
central characters often came from the lower classes and usually consisted of
laborers, peasants, and factory workers. The
plots were often de-emphasized in favor of open-ended structures that avoided
artificiality and sentimentality. Camerawork
on these films usually favored long shots and extended takes to further evoke a
"splice-of-life" honesty. In
many ways, these films were prescient of the later methods of cinéma
vérité which would also influence the French New Wave films of a decade
of the most celebrated directors of this neorealist style was Vittorio De Sica.
Initially a leading man in Italian films, he turned his attentions to
directing during WWII. By the
post-war era, he had matured into a perceptive and humanistic director, capable
of capturing on celluloid the plight and disillusionment of the common masses. One of his greatest triumphs was 1948's Ladri di Biciclette (The
Bicycle Thief), a deceptively simple commentary on the social uncertainties
of the time, woven around the tender relationship between a man and his young
son. The winner of an Oscar as Best
Foreign Film, The Bicycle Thief not
only firmly established De Sica's reputation on an international scale but is
still considered, to this day, one of the greatest films ever made.
the neorealist movement was winding down by the early 1950's, it was not before
De Sica would create a final masterpiece for the movement - Umberto
D. For this film, De Sica collaborated with his longtime
scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini, who had not only worked on the script for The
Bicycle Thief but had become something of a spokesman for the movement.
Umberto D. was their sixth
collaboration together, and De Sica likened his film to a story about the lack
of communication, not only between individuals but between the classes as well.
it was this fact which the Italian government found so disagreeable.
Italy, after years of post-war humility in the eyes of international
society, was seeking to recover its national pride.
Neorealism and its common themes, many government officials felt, ran
counter to that purpose. Partially
due to this increasingly politicized nature in Italian cinema by the 1950's, Umberto D. was not a popular success upon its initial release.
It was only years later when, removed from this political environment,
that the film has become recognized for what it is - one of the truly great
the film makes some attempts to expand the vocabulary of neorealism, it
ultimately follows many of the conventions of the movement.
The film reflects screenwriter Zavattini's belief in real-time narrative,
for it often follows its characters along in their routine tasks, events which
hold little narrative importance other than to show the un-dramatic nature of
their lives. As with most
neorealist characters, Umberto D.'s
two main, impoverished characters, Umberto and Maria, are both portrayed by
non-professionals. Carlo Battisti,
who portrayed Umberto, was in reality a Florentine professor of linguistic
science. Maria Pia Casilio, on the
other hand, was a simple school girl who had admittedly never seen a film before
nor even heard of director De Sica before being cast as Maria!
central character of the film is Umberto Domenico Ferrari.
He is an elderly man and a retired civil servant.
Now in his seventies, he is taken to long periods of inactivity and the
maudlin, routine acts of daily living. He
has been a boarder in a house for nearly twenty years, but as the film opens,
his money-minded landlady (Lina Gennari) has plans to evict him.
Umberto is alone, other than his faithful dog companion Flike and the
home's congenial, young housekeeper, Maria.
She tends to his needs, even caring for Flike and visiting Umberto once
when he is ill in the hospital. They
have the trusting relationship of a man and his daughter, and at one point in
the film, a nun even mistakes Maria for his daughter. Maria confides in Umberto secrets she has not told anyone
else. Although she is perhaps too
young and simple to truly understand Umberto, she is his only true friend in the
for Umberto's former associates, they all shun him. His retirement has left him with debts, which have only been
exacerbated by the greed of his landlady. But
when he mentions his financial woes to those he had considered friends, they
avoid him or change the topic. It
is perhaps a commentary on the fundamental selfishness of society, of the
reluctance to help others in need. Umberto
is eventually reduced to selling his possessions, including a fine pocket watch
and his beloved books. Still, he
understands the value of friendship, and despite his needs, he is not above
giving up of his worldly possessions to protect his Flike or to help Maria.
being a neorealist film, there are ultimately no magic solutions, no panacea, no
deus ex machina.
The film follows Umberto's plight to its natural conclusion.
It is a sad commentary to life, that society is often cruel and
disrespectful to its elderly citizens. Umberto,
his usefulness expended after so many years of loyal government service in the
Ministry of Public Works, is cast aside by former government colleagues and even
his landlady of many years. Retirement
has not brought the peace and tranquility which Umberto has deserved.
there are many themes in the movies which could be said to be Chaplin-esque in
style. That is not to say that Umberto
D. is a comedy, for it is not. But,
like many of Chaplin's finest works, it is a melodrama at heart, intertwining
moments of subtle charm and laughter with moments of great poignancy.
Much like Chaplin's early films (for example, A Dog's Life or The Kid),
the central character has a small companion for whom he has a great deal of
affection and whose life he saves, and vice versa. And as in Chaplin's later films, the central character also
has an affectionate female friend who befriends him when he has no one else.
Even the film's ending is typical of Chaplin.
Umberto, despite having gone through a series of personal tragedies and
having lost everything, essentially shrugs, clicks his heels, and wanders off
towards the horizon, playing with his dog, as the scene ends and the credits
roll. It is a classic Chaplin-esque
ending. Whether De Sica was
cognizant of these characterizations or not, who can say?
But nevertheless, the similarities are indeed striking.
is somewhat strange to think that critics at the time accused the film of being
pessimistic. Umberto D. is far more uplifting than De Sica's heartbreaking The
Bicycle Thief, which received all sorts of national accolades.
Umberto D. is bittersweet,
true, and there are several melodramatic touches, but it is ultimately a hopeful
film. Umberto may be heart-broken
and down on his luck, but in the end, he summons the will to live on, carrying
the sympathies of the audience as the film fades away. We may not learn of his fate, but we can sense that Umberto
will find his way, perhaps taking to heart some of Maria's final words to him:
"Wherever you go, you'll be happier than you are here."
a person is never truly free until he has lost everything.
In the end, Umberto's time is passed, but maybe he will recognize his
loss not as a personal tragedy but as an opportunity, in the sunset of his
years, to find inner peace and contentment.
D. marks a
high point in director De Sica's career. Amazingly,
throughout a directorial career that spanned four decades, De Sica continued to
act as well. The veteran actor of
over 150 films, De Sica eventually made his mark on both sides of the movie
camera. But he will be most
remembered for the legacy of his neorealist films, of which Umberto D. was one of the last and finest films of the movement.
presented in its original black & white, full-screen aspect ratio. It was made from a 35mm fine-grain master positive print,
with restorative work performed by Cineteca Nazionale-Scuola Nazionale di
Cinema. They did a very good job,
and Criterion has presented the film in a fine transfer. Contrast levels are excellent, with strong blacks and
brilliant whites. The level of
detail is quite high, with good clarity. There
are just a few rare instances where damage to the frame concedes to the film's
age. Otherwise, the film looks
fantastic and almost new.
presented with its original Italian monaural 1.0 track.
This track has been cleaned to remove traces of clicks, pops, hiss, and
crackle. Dialogue is very clear,
although the musical score is somewhat shrill and suffers intermittently from
distortion; this is most noticeable in a few early scenes.
Basically, it sounds like a typical European film from this time period
and is merely a reflection of the limitations of sound technology then.
Overall, the film sounds about as good as can be expected for an older
always, Criterion has done a superb job in assembling the disc's extra features.
First up is a 55-minute documentary, produced for Italian television in
2001, about director Vittorio De Sica. Drawn
entirely from newsreels, interviews, documentaries, and behind-the-scene footage
from over the years, it chronicles De Sica's long career over its fifty-plus
year span. Film clips, from his
acting career as well as directorial efforts, also grace this documentary. For the most part, De Sica himself is the narrator, and he
comes across as a very winsome and charismatic personality indeed, somewhat like
an Italian Maurice Chevalier. His
lifelong collaborator Cesare Zavattini appears a number of times.
So do some of his stars, including a breathtakingly radiant Sophia Loren,
who was the epitome of continental glamour at the time.
is a new 12-minute interview session with Maria Pia Casilio.
She was only fifteen when she made her film debut in Umberto
D., and in this interview, she fondly remembers her audition and her
subsequent, long-lasting film relationship with director De Sica.
He was like a mentor to her, helping to guide her early in her career and
often creating small roles in his films for her, whom he considered his
area in which Criterion DVDs remain unsurpassed is the quality and intellectual
content of their critical essays. This
DVD is no exception and contains three reflective articles on the film.
The first is by Italian novelist Umberto Eco, who describes his own
feelings about the film and how it affected him.
The second is by associate director Luisa Alessandri, who recalls some
humorous anecdotes from the film's production.
Lastly, there is Carlo Battisti's amusing short essay describing how this
university professor was chosen for the lead role of Umberto
addition to the essays on disc, the package insert also contains two additional
essays. A new essay written by
critic Stuart Klawans relates the film's history, particularly its cold
reception by the Italian government, which at this time had significant control
over the film industry and which felt that De Sica's film was a poor reflection
on Italian society. The second
essay is by De Sica himself. He
defends his film and its main character, even declaring that Umberto
D., which he dedicated to his father, was his favorite film among those
which he had directed.