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UMBERTO D.
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Memmo Carotenuto
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Audio: Italian monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: De Sica documentary, interview with Maria Pia Casilio, essays
Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: J
September 4, 2012

"Human 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." - Vittorio De Sica

Film ****

Italian 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.

That 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.

A 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 later.

One 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.

Although 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. 

Maybe 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 neorealist films.

Although 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!

The 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 film.

As 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.

This 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.

Curiously, 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.

It 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."

Perhaps 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.

Umberto 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.

Video ***1/2

Umberto D. is 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.

Audio ** 1/2

Umberto D. is 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 film.

Features *** 1/2

As 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.

Next 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 "lucky charm."

One area in which Criterion discs remain unsurpassed is the quality and intellectual content of their critical essays.  This Blu-ray 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 D.

In 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.

Summary:

I agree with De Sica.  Heartfelt and honest, Umberto D. is not only one of the classics of Italian neorealism, but it is De Sica's greatest masterpiece.  Kudos to Criterion for this wonderful Blu-ray of a wonderful film!

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