Umberto D. is what I call a hardcore art film. Italian neorealism deals with real-life problems of fairly ordinary people, but most of the classics are stories with a strong dramatic basis involving families or lovers set against harsh realities of war or poverty. Handsome actor-turned-director Vittorio De Sica had made some of the greatest of the style - The Bicycle Thief, Shoeshine, but had strong feelings for this story with little or no exploitable elements - no crime, no violence, no romance. It concerns the decline of an ordinary, inoffensive little man without family or friends. I've met many fans who agree that Umberto D.'s intimate misery was more affecting than all the other neorealist stories put together. It's certainly a keystone in any serious course of film study. Criterion presents it in near-perfect condition.
Relentlessly literal and unrelieved by humor or other distractions, Umberto D. concentrates on a man without choices, who has done no wrong yet faces a dire future. We're given to understand that this quiet, clean old guy with his little dog had some savings and didn't act irresponsibly, but that post-war economic conditions have tapped him out. He has nobody to turn to, and no way to attract sympathy from pragmatic types such as his status-seeking landlady, who has no use for him whatsoever.
Umberto reacts with dignity and relative calm to everything that comes, and rarely succumbs to his emotions. He's in every scene, yet never looks as though he's being directed, or is 'acting'. As explained by De Sica himself in an Italian TV show included as an extra, he wanted the role to be filled not by a professional actor, but by a 'real person'. De Sica found his perfect face in a retired college professor, a gentleman who fully inhabits the part.
The crude beginnings of neorealism are gone. The film isn't a slick enterprise, but neither is there a mix of film stocks or a catch-as-catch-can look to it. The soundtrack is convincingly realistic. Umberto's humble lodgings are designed and built, but only to facilitate camerawork. In a nice twist on neorealist conventions, as Umberto is forced out of his room he has to watch it being redecorated. The world is improving all around him, but the message is clear: He's not invited.
De Sica's achievement is to win audience sympathy without using obvious story techniques to demand it. Nobody really abuses poor Umberto, but there's a constant strain of indifference and bureaucratic disapproval. Many of these revolve around Umberto's dog Flike, the only thing he's managed to hold on to. De Sica saves his heart-wrenching moments for the end, but makes sure that the scene isn't hyped for undue melodrama. Anyone who ever owned a pet will understand.
I can fully understand why audiences and critics charmed by the director's previous fantasy, Miracle in Milan, 1 thought Umberto D. a big letdown. It's the truest work of neorealism, and doesn't have cute kids, dreamy lovers, or crime thrills. Instead we get the kind of grinding real-life problems faced by the honest poor. I can see many complacent viewers dismissing the story and asking why Umberto didn't secure himself a family when he was young, so this wouldn't happen, as if the whole thing were the old man's fault. It's true: the average audience will accept social realities in their entertainment, but even an arthouse crowd wants to be 'entertained'. Umberto D. is a pure neorealist experience.
Criterion's presentation of Umberto D. is their customary smooth transfer, with the added plus of careful digital cleanup. I've seen good prints of the show, but nothing as flawless as this, especially the soundtrack. Once again, Criterion has taken the time and expense to license prime source materials for extras - in this case, an RAI TV show where a rather puffed-up De Sica covers his entire life and career up to about 1973. Also included is a new interview with actress Maria Pia Casilio, who explains how she came to play Umberto's young friend completely by accident. There is a surfeit of text extras as well, enumerated below.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Umberto D. rates:
1. I hope Miracle in Milan is
in the future plans. It's one of the better fantasies ever made, and although
the older laserdisc was good, a Criterion brush-up is just what it needs - along with the restoration
of a censored scene.