The focus of Italian neorealism is the real-life problems of ordinary people. However, most of the real classics are stories of families or lovers set against the harsh realities of poverty or war. Actor-turned-director Vittorio De Sica was considered a central figure in the neorealist movement, having released some of the greatest films of the genre—The Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine—but at the height of his success, De Sica chose to make Umberto D., a film with no crime, no violence and no romance. Nonetheless, Umberto D. is a film that exemplifies human suffering from the first frame to the last.
As the film opens, a group of retired senior citizens are protesting for a raise in their pension payments. Given the increased cost of living, those who are forced to subsist solely on their pensions just can’t make ends meet. Umberto D. Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is one of them. A retired government worker, Umberto is a sad, lonely man, with no family, no friends, just a loving dog named Flike. He walks the streets a broken man—permanent slouch, slumped shoulders, shuffling gait—looking for something to do, wanting to feel needed. Umberto isn’t experiencing his “golden years.” De Sica uses his camera framing and deep focus photography to make Umberto’s isolation clear; He’s often framed at the bottom of the screen as if the city is engulfing him.
Umberto’s apartment brings no peace. After living there for a decade, Umberto’s landlady (Lina Gennari) has announced plans to evict him if he doesn’t pay what he owes. Terribly worried, Umberto quickly sells nearly everything he owns—some books and an old watch—and gives the money to the young maid Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), who has recently discovered that she is expecting a child. But the landlady refuses to accept the money because Umberto is still short a couple of thousand lire. Throughout the film, we watch Umberto move from scheme to scheme, whether it’s voluntarily staying in the hospital or pleading for a loan, we watch Umberto’s dignity degrade further and further.
When Umberto returns home from the hospital, he finds his former home gutted and under construction. Homelessness is now inevitable. His life now reduced to a single suitcase and a dog. It’s here that Umberto’s relationship with Filke truly becomes the heart and soul of the film. There’s little doubt that Umberto cares for the dog more than himself. They are partners in suffering. Flike’s journey is just as forceful. It’s absolutely heartbreaking when the little dog disappears and Umberto desperately searches the shelter where dogs are euthanized. The old man moves from cage to cage, desperately hoping his friend is there. Eventually they are reunited; that moment of pure joy is as powerful as any ever recorded for the screen.
De Sica doesn’t let up. The finale packs an emotional wallop, as Umberto, knowing that he can no longer properly care for Filke, tries to give him a new home. His attempts to leave his beloved dog are beyond moving. One characteristic of the neorealist movement was the tendency to use non professional actors who would bring a sense of realism to their roles. Umberto D. was Carlo Battisti’s only film and he’s amazing. He makes it feel like we are being let in on his life. As a result, the film never feels manipulative or over the top.
Rendered in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s 1080p transfer is great. Taken from the camera negative, the image is impressive with a majority of the shots showing strong detail. The solid grayscale emphasizes the blacks, making the image pop. There are a few long shots that look a bit blurry and there’s some brief line twitter but that shouldn’t deter potential viewers.
The PCM 1.0 sound mix sounds fairly typical of film’s from the era. Criterion has clearly given the track a good once over; freeing it of any major aural defects. Nonetheless, the tracks limitations are obvious, revealing occasional drops in the sound level.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following special features are available:
- That’s Life: Vittorio De Sica (54:35, SD) an excellent documentary made by Sandro Lai, about the life and legacy of Vittorio De Sica. The documentary includes various clips from films Vittorio De Sica directed or appeared in, as well as archival interviews with the great scenarist Cesare Zavattini. The Italian director specifically addresses Umberto D., and discusses its message.
- Maria Pia Casilio (12:07, SD) in this interview conducted by Criterion in 2003, actress Maria Pia Casilio recalls her first meeting with Vittorio De Sica and discusses her contribution to Umberto D.. Maria Pia Casilio was discovered by the Italian director when she was only 15 and had her first acting role in his film.
- Trailer (3:45, HD) original Italian trailer for Umberto D.
- Booklet: 18-page illustrated booklet featuring Stuart Klawans’ essay Seeing Clearly Through Tears: On the Smart Sentiment of Umberto D.; an excerpt from Vittorio De Sica’s introduction to the 1968 English-language edition of the screenplay for his 1951 film Miracle in Milan; and another excerpt from a June 1951 Epoca magazine piece by linguistics professor Carlo Battisti about being cast as the main character in Umberto D., reprinted from the 1995 book “Umberto D.” di Vittorio De Sica.