Of the more than 30 films directed by neo-realist auteur Vittorio De Sica, this was his own favorite.
Reviewed by Marrit Ingman, Fri., Aug. 30, 2002
UMBERTO D. (1952)
D: Vittorio De Sica; with Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Memmo Carotenuto.
Of the more than 30 films directed by neo-realist auteur De Sica, this was his own favorite; the credits include a dedication to De Sica's father. A revival of a restored print earlier this year won this bleak character study new fans in cities like Washington, D.C., and Chicago. And bleak it is, following the titular pensioner (Battisti) around Rome in search of lire to pay off his pretentious, social-climbing landlady (Gennari). Umberto's room is a miserable ant-infested crackerbox with peeling wallpaper, rented by the hour to furtive part-time lovers whenever he ventures out for errands with his dog, Filke (though the subtitles in the Janus Films VHS edition refer to him as "Flag"). For Umberto, it's home nonetheless. A kindly young housemaid Maria (Casilio) also lives there; she's three months pregnant with a child sired by one of her two soldier boyfriends, both of whom deny paternity. Both Umberto and Maria are disposable people in the eyes of postwar Italian society -- awkward reminders of aging and human frailty -- so it does not surprise that they are friends. Yet there is little hope for Umberto, who faces certain eviction. The film follows Umberto through small, salient episodes of his life -- he eats in a soup kitchen, takes part in a protest broken up by police, crosses paths with acquaintances who are waiting for buses and have no time for his halting requests for help. The story is not about what Umberto does but about who he is: neatly attired, precise, and so proud that a perfunctory attempt at begging on the street visibly tears him apart. Even during moments of dramatic tension, as when Flag and Umberto are inevitably separated and reunited, the tone of the film remains distanced and matter-of-fact; De Sica does not tip his hand by overplaying these scenes for sentimental effect, though Alessandro Cicognini's score is a bit thick at times. In a move typical of the neo-realist movement, De Sica selected his leading man because he embodied the character; Battisti, who died in 1977, was a college professor, and he never acted again. If the film's outlook is harsh -- it's not saying too much to suggest that a happy ending is impossible -- that's because life is harsh. Yet there are many moments of surpassing cinematic beauty, as well. One memorable sequence follows Maria through her morning routine. Awakened by a stray cat padding across the roof, she rises and proceeds to the kitchen, grinding the coffee while reaching to close the door with her toe. Her actions sound unremarkable on paper, but De Sica is so attuned to the rhythm of her rituals that the scene feels wonderfully lived-in, as if the boundary between life and art itself has dissolved for one perfect instant.