Umberto D Review
Regarded as one of the best movies ever made, Umberto D was the product of a tremendously successful partnership between director Vittorio de Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, which had already delivered heartbreaking neorealist studies of poverty in post-war Italy in Shoeshine (1948), Miracle In Milan (1951) and perhaps the most famous of all Italian neorealist cinema, Bicycle Thieves (1948).
Retired after 30 years working in the public service, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is left with an inadequate pension. His landlady (Lina Gennari) is engaged to be married to the owner of the local cinema and the old man is an embarrassment to have around when she is entertaining her new society friends. Threatened with eviction, Umberto tries every means possible to raise the money to pay for the rent, selling everything that is precious to him. His only friends are the maid Maria (Maria Pia Casilio) and his dog, Flike. No one else seems to be willing or able to help him out of his predicament.
Umberto D returns to many of the same themes in earlier films in their collaboration – the solitary struggle against poverty, against indifference and against injustice, all the while trying to maintain one’s dignity, self-esteem and integrity. There is a strong literary quality in this study of old age, Umberto resembling a character from a Dostoevsky novel or a Gogol story, but there is also a Kafkaesque edge to the flow of everyday absurdity of the circumstances he is caught up in. Caught up in a fever with tonsillitis in one scene, Umberto’s troubles take on an almost nightmarish quality as he lies in fevered sleep while around him he hears the sounds of singing down the corridor, hears an army bugle, watches the furtive entrance of the maid into his room looking for her soldier boyfriend in the courtyard below, and is disturbed by the sounds rising from the movie house below. The whole film flows to this rhythm, the characters interior lives mingled with the everyday struggles and events that make up their lives with no real distinction between them.
Umberto’s fate is inextricably linked in this respect with that of his dog Flick. Seen by some viewers as little more than a sentimental device to jerk the audience into tears, the dog’s role is actually more symbolic, the circumstances that the old man is in similar to that of a stray dog cast out onto the streets by an uncaring society. It’s a powerful metaphor that is responsible for some of the most striking and moving scenes in the film, such as where the roles are switched and, Umberto, finally reduced to begging on the streets, has Flick stand-in for him while he hides behind a pillar. This is not just done for cuteness – although the image is extraordinary – but to illustrate just how far down Umberto has been driven, seeing the loss of dignity in such an act as being no longer human. It’s a circumstance that the old man cannot bring himself to submit to, like the thoughts of suicide and the necessity of abandoning his dog. In the end Umberto accepts that his fate and Flick’s are one and it makes for an amazing conclusion that is the absolute antithesis of tear-jerking sentimentality or cuteness.
The negative for Umberto D has been fully restored and was released on DVD in Italy by Medusa for their Cinema Forever collection. Like the restored print of La Dolce Vita, this has been released in its restored form by Nouveaux Pictures in the UK.
The picture quality of the restored print is quite amazing. The print shows strong lighting, solid blacks and often fabulous detail in the greyscale tones. There are very few marks on the print at all, and although the quality varies from scene to scene in terms of sharpness and clarity, the overall impact of the film and the photography are fully met in the transfer, presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The original mono soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is also appears to have been fully restored, demonstrating clarity of tone with no background crackle or noise.
English subtitles are mandatory and unfortunately, they aren’t always easy to read against bright foregrounds – see examples below. The translation is generally fine, but often intentionally drops letters to represent rough speaking or accents. I’m not sure that this is a good idea.
(Click images to enlarge)
Cesare Zavattini featurette (1:07:26)
Using interviews with Bertolucci, Benigni, Bellocchio and acquaintances and colleagues from the artworld, newspapers and humour magazines, Carlo Lizzani’s film presents a fine overview of ‘Za’, a larger than life character who couldn’t be defined or restricted to working in only one medium. The feature is in Italian with fixed English subtitles.
Umberto D is still an important film whose message is all the more powerful for the realism that the non-professional actors bring to their characters, for the literary qualities and social concerns of Zavattini’s script and for de Sica’s simple, fluid direction. The quality of the restored print used for this DVD release is superb, presenting a wonderful film in the quality it deserves to be seen. The UK release lacks the number of extra features on the Region 1 DVD, but the Zavattini featurette is relevant and comprehensive, making this a good alternative to the Criterion release.