Umberto D. has the essence of a great film. But in the end, it lacks the emotional power necessary to drive its story home. Although the film's simplicity is one of its greatest strengths, it is also one of its greatest weaknesses.
Directed by Vittorio De Sica using nonprofessional actors, Umberto D. follows an elderly pensioner (Carlos Battisti) in postwar Italy as he fights to survive with his dignity intact. He's hungry and without much money, but his love for his dog, Flike, is overpowering and he allows the mutt to eat off of his own plate. As others around him become beggars, Umberto is unable to stoop to such levels. Instead, he attempts to sell his few possessions and make it in a world that has moved on without him.
This film is reality; it focuses on Umberto's day to day routines as he struggles to meet the most basic of needs. This works with many scenes, particularly those that focus on the love and companionship he feels for his dog. The character comes to life as he thinks of his friend before himself. However, there are too many menial details that slow the pace of this film to a crawl. Watching him walk slowly down stairs or through the town, or watching the maid (Maria Pia Casilio) ground coffee for several minutes, is almost painful.
Too much time is wasted on simplicity during the first half of this film, time that could have been used developing relationships. The ending felt as if it could really have been powerful. I knew I should be heartbroken and sad, but there just wasn't enough characterization in the beginning to allow myself to feel for this character. It was just too simple for me to truly understand, or to fully immerse myself in the unlucky life this man had.
Aside from Umberto, the two other characters were underused. I enjoyed Maria, the young maid, and her dilemma of loving two soldiers and not knowing which was the father of her unborn child. I felt a connection to Umberto and the young woman, but they never quite made that leap. As for the evil landlady (Lina Gennari), she was evil personified, but too much of a cliché. I couldn't believe that anyone could be so cruel. With a touch of compassion, her cold heart would have been much more believable and the pain she inflicted much more depressing for viewers.
As it is, Umberto D. is this close to being the emotional journey I was expecting. The essence of its simplicity was wonderful, but more detail was needed to allow me to emotionally tie myself to the characters.
Criterion presents Umberto D. in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and it looks stellar. Featured in glorious black and white, this transfer offers great detail. Darks are solid and contrast looks surprisingly nice. The film does show its age occasionally with lost frames, minor scratches, and some softness. These detractions aren't overbearing, but they do negate an otherwise wonderful presentation.
Criterion offers Umberto D. in 1.0 Dolby Digital (Italian, with English subtitles), and although it probably sounds better than it has since its opening in 1952, it still has some flaws. The pitches seem a tad high, and there isn't an overall feeling of crispness. Sure, voices and the music sound fine, but they feel slightly off. Considering the age of the film, this isn't surprising.
THE BONUS FEATURES
The biggest feature on this disc is "That's Life: Vittorio De Sica," a 55-minute documentary made for Italian television in 2001. The documentary chronicles De Sica's films using footage from his directorial days and lots of interviews. Although I felt this feature was a bit long and slightly dull after the halfway point, fans of De Sica will love it.
Also on board is a recent interview with Maria Pia Casilio, a very interesting woman who reminisces on her experiences working with De Sica and Battisti. This short interview is presented in her native language, Italian, with English subtitles. Last but not least are several text essays by Umberto Eco, Luisa Alessandri, and Carlo Battisti (the booklet also features an essay by critic Stuart Klawans and an excerpt from De Sica's book, "Miracle in Milan"). These are interesting looks at the film and audiences reaction to it during the time of its release.
I really wanted to like Umberto D. It has the essence of a great film, but it just doesn't pack the needed emotional attachment. Despite a wonderful presentation by The Criterion Collection, with a great audio/video package, I can only suggest a rental.