Director: Vittorio De Sica
Script: Cesare Zavattini, Vittoria De Sica
Cast: Cesare Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari
89min Drama Italian with subtitles
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Umberto D is one of the most famous films of the Italian neorealist movement and successful in its mission to show true life after the second World War, happening to ordinary people suffering from its effects and protesting against poverty and Government cuts in the open streets, where they are unceremoniously moved on by the police.
From a story written and scripted by Cesare Zavattini, Vittorio De Sica directed this touching and deeply moving film that was claimed to be his favourite. And I can see why. Conforming to neo-realist tenets of using non professional actors and outdoor settings, he casts a non-actor Carlo Battisti in the role of Umberto, a decent old man trying to keep his home in a small room amid desperate poverty of Rome. He is pestered by his landlady (Lina Gennari) for the meagre rent. His only friends are his little dog, Flick, and a young housemaid Maria (Maria-Pia Cailio). Filmed out and about in Rome and in the dingy flat he occupies, it is made all the more sombre by composer Alessandro Cicognini’s orchestral score and a stark black and white setting.
The Rome of the early fifties appears dour and worn down with no exciting cafe society or sparkle of the ‘Dolce Vita’ that was to come with the sixties, most of the buildings look dirty and worn down. It’s a scene of unremitting gloom with the only brief lightness coming from the sunny park scene where Umberto offers to give Flick away to a young girl hoping to find him a good home because he can no longer feed him, or himself. There’s no sentimentality attached to Flick: the camera does not dwell on his tricks or his charm, just on the fact that he is devoted to his master and his master to him. This is a sad story told without melodrama or judgement: the only person we judge is his possibly his landlady, who would rather offer his room to cheating couples than allow him refuge.
Considering he has no training as an actor Carlo Battisti, then in his seventies, gives a convincing performance as a self-respecting and well-turned-out pensioner in hat and overcoat, who puts his best foot forward despite his difficulties and never resorts to anger, resentment or self-pity. His facial expressions echo the sorrowful dignity and personal torture of a gentleman brought to his knees by poverty and loss but still preserving with decency and hope. The only time he complains is when, after a long day trudging the streets in search of Flick, who goes missing while he’s in hospital, he returns to the persion and simply says to Maria: “I’m tired”. And that simple comment and his quiet resignation, speaks volumes. At one point there’s an extraordinary scene where he’s on the verge of begging in the street for L2,000 to pay his landlady, and puts his palm out to see if he can beg. Just as a passer-by is about to give him money, he turns it over, as if testing for rain. the timing of this is quite brilliant and, seen out of context, could almost raise a laugh. The other suburb scene is towards the end when, out of desperation, he jumps in front of a passing train.
Somehow the relationship with his dog allows him to express the deep emotions he feels that could not be expressed with a fellow human being and that is the key to the success of the film: De Sica shows how tenderly love us and never judge us; always love us and it’s Flick, the dog, who ultimately redeems his master, allowing us to connect to the pain and suffering of one man and the here the true vulnerability of the human soul is allowed to shine through in this simplest and purist of tragedies. MT
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