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131 - Umberto D. 
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Assistant Second Unit Director

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Post 131 - Umberto D.
An Amato Film production. Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Written by Cesare Zavattini. No M.P.A.A. rating; contains no objectionable material. Running time: 91 minutes. Original Italian theatrical release date: January 20, 1952. In Italian, with English subtitles.

There is a moment midway through Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. that is just about the saddest single scene I’ve ever seen in a film: Umberto (Carlo Battisti, in his only film role) is an elderly man whose retirement pension is not enough to pay rent, and he will soon be homeless if he does not scrounge up enough money to pay his landlady. He has tried to come up with the necessary funds; he has scraped deep into his personal belongings and sold relics and clothes that are dear to him. Now all he has left to do is beg, but his pride is far too strong to allow himself to do so. He stands on a street corner, his faithful dog by his side; he sticks out his hand and looks ashamedly into the heavens. When the first spectator walks by and thinks to give him some change, Umberto puts his hand down and holds his shoulders high. He simply cannot bring himself to take another person’s money for nothing.

I suppose this scene should be one of triumph and not sadness—“Sorrowful dignity,” as De Sica describes it—except we know by now that Umberto is such a proud man that the mere consideration of begging clearly destroys him. We also know that not begging will leave him itinerant. So he reaches a pathetic but clever solution: Lacking the proper humility to beg himself, he has his dog stand on his hind legs with his hat between his teeth, while Umberto himself hides behind a column and waits. The dog is faithful enough to do so, and the look he casts Umberto reveals a strange type of sad understanding. Our beloved pets always seem to know when we are at our lowest and they respond accordingly; by the time the dog is left begging on his hind legs, we know that his sympathy is literally all Umberto has left. Has dignity ever seemed so utterly devastating?

This scene is overwhelming entirely because of the underwhelming way that De Sica shoots it. He does not sentimentalize because he is a neorealist. The very rules of neorealism demand that 1) the film be as authentic as possible in its depiction of post-WWII life in Italy, 2) that it shoot on location, and 3) this it feature a cast primarily of non-professionals. There can be no complicated camera angles or hidden imagery; the very simplicity of the tale must speak for itself, and it must convey life in a straightforward manner that does not guarantee a happy ending. By 1952, neorealism was on its way out with Italy finally finding its economic footing again; De Sica helped begin the genre with 1946’s Shoeshine, and he is generally regarded as the one who ended it with Umberto D., which might be his greatest achievement for the way it so faithfully sticks to the rules and allows plainness to create its own complexities.

Neorealist films were born out of anguish and outrage, in a country that had just been utterly defeated in an embarrassing and devastating war. So it is no surprise that the genre is unrivaled in its ability to break our hearts with the simplest and truest of images: After the end of fascism, Italy was in the brink of poverty and decay; only the most elite were unscathed, and most others were reduced to living threadbare lives and existing on the skin of their teeth. Out of these hardships, poverty-born men like Roberto Rossellini (Open City), Luchino Visconti (The Leopard), and Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief) emerged, and with them some of the most extraordinary motion pictures dedicated to preserving these hard times. Watch as many of their films as you can find; you will be amazed at how aware they make you of the hidden blessings in your own daily life.

The trick to approaching Umberto D. is to simply empty yourself of any narrative expectations and to let yourself follow Umberto along in his daily life. This story is told matter-of-factly; it does not utilize metaphors or plot-twists to reveal anything more than exactly what you see on the screen. The film is presented as a series of vignettes surrounding the old man and his dog and their quest to avoid homelessness: Umberto will meet old friends and make a few new ones; he will visit the hospital and the dog-pound; all the while, he calculates his predicament and carefully considers his next possible steps.

The best neorealist films are those that simply record and observe. All neorealist films do this by definition, but more than a few get stuck in the trappings of commenting obviously on social concerns. This upsets the rhythm of a reality where most people are too busy trying to live as comfortably as possible to think too deeply about larger issues. De Sica himself has been guilty of this—his landmark The Bicycle Thief (1948) is wonderful, but it contains too much cinematic irony to be considered true a neorealist film (I’m prepared to get lots of feedback about this sentence arguing otherwise; make a good case, and I’ll post it). This doesn’t diminish its greatness or its power, but it does call its place in the genre into question.

The opening moments of Umberto D. feature a labor demonstration that seem to indicate that the film will continue the tradition of The Bicycle Thief: Workers march angrily through town and are eventually disassembled by a large bus that inadvertently plows through them. We wonder instinctually if this image could be a metaphor for the protagonist, who might be someone heavily involved in these proceedings. But the scene eventually plays like a critique on neorealist directors who would prefer to use such imagery: “They should have had a permit,” an indifferent Umberto notes to some friends, and they walk away discussing retirement and wind-up watches. The point is that such demonstrations happen all the time in postwar Italy, but life resumes immediately afterward.

Mon May 09, 2011 9:46 pm
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Assistant Second Unit Director

Joined: Tue May 03, 2011 8:39 pm
Posts: 58
Location: Juneau, Alaska
Post Re: 131 - Umberto D.
The effect of Umberto D. reminds of Roberto Rossellini’s The Messiah (1976), which, while not technically a neorealist piece, utilizes similar scenes of everyday life and downplays the typical melodrama of the Christ story. Its greatest image is of Jesus delivering his sermons while toiling away on his carpentry trade; as he preaches his most beloved words, Jesus, as a carpenter, stops to admire his work. The idea of Jesus as a practicing carpenter seems obvious, but Rossellini’s effect makes him decidedly human and penetrable. Thus is the nature of De Sica’s lens here: People go about doing tasks that to them seem obvious and natural—and in principle, they are both—but somehow the very act of watching these fellow human beings lends insight into our own existence, which is after all comprised mostly of simple and obvious acts. In the case of the title character, he is a man so beaten that suicide seems like a logical course, if not for the anguish and guilt he would feel for leaving his dog without a home. Watching this plight tugs our heartstrings merely because we see the love Umberto has for the dog, and the love that the dog has for Umberto. In this connection lies the heart of all that is human.

In the meantime—oh, what delightfully simple little details provided by De Sica. I suppose that to list them would steal some of their thunder for those who haven’t seen the film, so let me just put it this way: Perhaps my single favorite aspect of this picture is how De Sica allows Umberto to inhabit a fully-realized world with characters trapped in their own daily trials. We follow in part Umberto’s relationship with Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), the maid in the building he rents; she is pregnant and can only guess the father’s identity, but Umberto doesn’t judge and in fact sees her as a daughter: Watch his reaction when she encounters him at the hospital and the doctor asks if they are related. We also interact with the owner of the apartment in which he lives, a would-be opera diva (played by Lina Gennari) who practices singing with other hopefuls late into the night while Umberto tries to sleep. She is engaged to be married and wants to remove Umberto’s room altogether in order to make room for a large reception area. He is thus informed that he must leave, but we suspect that she has a hatred for the man beyond this inconvenience. We are only left to speculate, as in life.

What’s specifically fascinating about these smaller characters is De Sica’s love for personal dilemmas that betray themselves on the human face. We suspect that he could have chosen to point his camera at any given face in the crowd and still produced a similarly powerful film of people living with their uncomplicated struggles. So rich are these people that my favorite character in the film is one who is uncredited and has less than a minute of screen time—a poor man at the dog pound cannot afford to collect his pet but also cannot bear to think of it being put to sleep. We linger on his face for a moment and then move on, but he stays with us because of the sadness of his situation and the way that De Sica films his chewing lip and troubled brow. No doubt a film about this man could be just as strong.

I also find it fascinating that Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Ikiru came out the same year. In a way, the two films are joined at the hip: Both detail elderly protagonists living in shamed postwar societies and they deal directly with the process of growing old and finding some reason to exist in changing times. Both also sadly follow the plight of men who seem hard pressed to find a reason to exist: As Umberto states, “Now that I’m retired, all I do is exist. There is nothing else.” The difference, of course, is that Ikiru is clearly a parable and Umberto D. is a photograph. But stubborn spunk in these men’s personality informs both films: Kurosawa’s hero eventually sees the light and finds purpose beyond his frail identity, and Umberto is determined to maintain his dignity even in the direst of circumstances. What’s extraordinary is that Umberto does not need an epiphany in order to maintain his pride; he is content remaining himself and allowing the world to go on with or without an awareness of his plight. We get the feeling as we watch him wander the streets that he’d tell Kurosawa’s hero to sit up straight and stop looking so beaten.

This is how we eventually leave Umberto. The image of the man hiding in the bushes and watching his dog beg eventually reaches a kind of conclusion, in which Umberto and his dog seem to wander off into the sunset. De Sica underscores this sequence with ominous music that suggests that his problems are not over, and obviously in a neorealist world, there is no such thing as a happy ending—except if we can accept the mere fact that we live as a sort of happiness. But in Umberto we at least have a soul who decides to persevere as he stares into an unforgiving world, and are thus given perhaps the most memorable character in all of neorealist cinema: Here is a man who is broke, but never broken.

Mon May 09, 2011 9:46 pm
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