Having directed one of the key texts in the Italian Neorealist movement—and certainly its most well-known title—with ‘Bicycle Thieves’ in 1948, Vittorio De Sica would perfect the technique and ideology of this filmmaking period a few years later, with his masterpiece ‘Umberto D.’ Neorealism redefined the image of Italy in the aftermath of WWII, accurately depicting the struggles of working people. ‘Umberto D.’ was one of the final films made in this period, and remains one of the very best.
It’s such a cliche to say this but I don’t care – this film is savagely relevant. As we race headlong into the worst cost of living crisis since the postwar years, seeing a film begin with pensioners protesting in the streets of Rome for the government to raise their paltry pensions so they can afford to live feels startlingly pertinent. Among the protestors is Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) a retired government worker. He just wants to be able to pay his rent and look after his dog, which is essentially the plot of the entire film.
In his way is an uncaring government, and a cruel landlady who wants to evict him. He is forced to sell his worldly possessions to make ends meet, and when illness sees him hospitalised, his landlady begins knocking a wall down in his room in preparation for when he is evicted, or dead. Spiraling into poverty, and being slowly robbed of his dignity, the only rays of light in Umberto’s life are his beloved dog Flike, and his friendship with the young maid Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio) who is pregnant but unsure of who the father is.
If at this point you are thinking that ‘Umberto D.’ doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, you would be right. It is however, a film that puts you through the emotional wringer. The final ten minutes are among the most heartbreaking scenes I have ever seen in a film. Over the years some accusations have been levelled at the film that anything involving a poorly old man and a dog is emotionally manipulative, but that is nonsense. Art is meant to move you.
Filmed with non-professional actors to give the film its punchy authenticity, De Sica shot the film partly on location and also at the legendary Cinecittà studios in Rome. This enabled him to enhance the visual beauty of the film with exquisite deep focus cinematography. Accompanied by Alessandro Cicognini’s operatic score, De Sica elevates the film from the guerrilla aesthetic of neorealism to something truly beautiful.
By Criterion standards, the supplementary features are quite light for this release. Bizarrely, the DVD release has more comprehensive special features than the Blu-ray. Not sure I’ve seen that before from Criterion.
But it was the Blu-ray that I reviewed, and that kicks off with ‘That’s Life: Vittorio De Sica’ – a made for television documentary providing an overview of De Sica’s career. The programme features behind the scenes footage from many of his films and also conversations between De Sica and his longtime writing partner Cesare Zavattini.
There is also an interview from 2003 with actress Maria-Pia Casilio who made her acting debut in ‘Umberto D.’ when she was just 15 years old. The booklet comes with writing from critic Stuart Klawans and a re-printed recollection from Vittorio De Sica.
Cast: Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari Director: Vittorio De Sica Writer: Cesare Zavattini Released By: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Certificate: PG Duration: 89 mins Release Date: 15th August 2022