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Life with Dignity

Aug 21, 2004 (Updated Feb 4, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Very touching story from Italian Neo-realism period, solid performances, beautiful cinematography, marvelous Criterion restoration

Cons:Slow pace and emphasis on ordinary daily activities may bore those raised on action fare

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended example of Italian Neo-realism, considered by De Sica to be his best film


No one came to epitomize the Neo-realism movement in Italian post-war cinema more than Vittorio De Sica (1901-1974). The tenets of Neo-realism included use of non-professional actors, gritty cinematography, simplified narratives, and emphasis on the everyday activities of working class or impoverished people. With Italy in physical and economic ruins at the end of World War II, Neo-realism sprung up as much out of necessity as from artistic ideals. The use of non-professional actors reduced the cost of making films and the gritty cinematography was partly related to low-quality film stock and limited capacity to control lighting with expensive equipment. Nevertheless, the principles of the Neo-realism movement also artistically served the spirit of the times well, since the pathos of the struggle for survival was foremost on the minds of the Italian people during the late 1940’s.

De Sica frequently collaborated with writer Cesare Zavattini, especially during the period when Neo-realism was at its height. This pair had already collaborated on The Children are Watching Us (1944) and The Gate of Heaven (1945) during the war (and pre-Neo-realism) and collaborated as late as 1960 on Two Women, but they truly made their mark working together on four great films in the Neo-realism style: Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thief (1948), both of which won the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, Miracle in Milan (1951), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1951, and Umberto D. (1952), for which Zavattini received an Academy Award nomination for best script. De Sica himself considered Umberto D. his best film as a director but his assessment is not universally shared by critics and was certainly not reflected in the public response. Umberto D. illustrates better than most films how viewer responses to cinema are inherently subjective in nature. Films sometimes rise or fall not on their intrinsic merits but by their fit with the mood and interests of an audience at the time of their viewing. I’ll return to this point below, but let’s first consider what this film is about.

The Story: The film opens on a street demonstration at city hall. A group of retirees on insufficient state pensions have gathered to demand an increase. They are easily dispersed by soldiers in jeeps. Although the protagonist, Umberto, is among the protestors, he is not singled out in any way during the demonstration, thus establishing that his particular story applies in kind to thousands of others in similar circumstances.

Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is a retired civil servant living on a fixed income (meaning that the amount he is paid by his pension does not increase with inflation and therefore he loses purchasing power with each passing year). He lives in a sparsely furnished room with a few meager possessions. The rent for his room alone is equal to half his monthly pension and, even skipping meals or taking free meals now and then at a shelter, he is unable to get by. His only non-essential expense is his little dog, named Flike. Umberto has fallen behind in his rent and the unsympathetic landlady (Lina Gennari) would really prefer to evict him for non-payment then be paid because she could rent out the room for twice what he pays under current rates. She has served notice to him that he will be thrown out at the end of the month. Umberto fully understands that any other available room in the city would cost twice what he now pays. If he is evicted, he will be homeless.

Umberto struggles to avoid that final descent from grinding poverty into shame and humiliation. He returns to his room on one occasion to find it “in use” by a prostitute and her customer. His landlady reminds him that it is her room, not his. She rents out both his room and the living room to such couples for additional income. Umberto must wait it out in the ant-infested kitchen. There, he at least has the companionship of his only human friend in the world, the landlady’s housekeeper, Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio). Maria is just age fifteen but confides in Umberto that she is three months pregnant. She adds that the father is either a tall soldier from Florence or a short one from Naples. It matters little since neither intends to assume responsibility.

Umberto goes to a shelter that serves free meals and sneaks Flike in as well, slipping a plate to Flike when he thinks no one is looking. When a shelter employee comes to collect empty plates, he has to improvise quickly by shuffling the plates of his neighbors to confuse the count. Nevertheless, he is warned by the supervisor not to bring his dog again.

Umberto develops a sore throat and fever and calls an ambulance to help him get to a clinic. He asks Maria to watch after Flike while he’s gone and enlists one of the ambulance medics in distracting Flike while he sneaks away. Hospitalization, for Umberto, confers the benefits of a clean bed, regular meals, and a bit of medical attention. The benefits of prolonging hospitalization are not lost on the other elderly patients. We observe the man in the adjacent bed begging the nun to prolong his stay and advising Umberto to ask for a rosary in order to get on the good side of the nuns.

When Umberto returns to his room, he discovers that the landlady has left the door open so that Flike would go out. In a panic, Umberto scours the neighborhood and, failing to find Flike, heads for the dog pound. He starts with the room where the dogs are put down to make sure Flike is not already there. He examines those picked up in the last few days as well as the new arrivals. One cage is so packed with barking, snarling dogs he cannot even clearly see if Flike is among them. Finally, Flike arrives with a newly sequestered group and the two are happily reunited.

Umberto is down to his last day or two before eviction. He visits the square in front of city hall where the homeless beg for handouts. He watches a beggar for a while, studying his technique and practices holding his hand out. As he is about to be given money, he turns his hand palm down, unable to bear the humiliation. He puts his hat in Flike’s mouth and has him sit-up and hides a short distance away. When a man approaches whom he knew in his former days as a civil servant, he quickly interrupts Flike, knowing that the man will recognize Flike as his dog. He cannot demean either himself or his dog in such a manner.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN NEXT PARAGRAPH. SKIP TO THEMES IF YOU’D LIKE TO VIEW THE FILM AND RETAIN SURPRISES!

Umberto returns to his room for his last evening. Looking out his window for the last time, the pavement below suddenly seems highly inviting to the disconsolate old man. Only his responsibility to Flike holds him back. You can see the wheels turning in his head and he sets out in the morning to try to find some way to provide for Flike as he contemplates his own suicide. He visits a dog pound and offers to leave all that he has as payment for boarding, but learns that the couple operating the pound turn the dogs loose if their boarding fee runs out. Moreover, the atmosphere seems hardly conducive to Flike’s well-being. Umberto walks Flike to a lovely park where children are playing contentedly. He offers Flike to a little girl who he has apparently previously encountered since he knows her by name. The girl is delighted but the nanny and nanny’s boyfriend, who are escorting the girl, refuse to allow her to take Flike. When Flike runs off a few yards to play with a group of three children, Umberto decides he’ll simply abandon him and leave him to his own devices. He sneaks off and tries to hide under the nearby footbridge, but Flike easily sniffs him out. At his wits end, Umberto takes Flike up in his arms and walks to the nearby train tracks, planning to throw himself with Flike in front of a on-coming express train. They get as close as a foot or two, but Flike is so panicked by the frightful noise and wind that he breaks loose and runs back to the park, with Umberto in pursuit. What follows is an extraordinarily touching scene of interaction between a dog and a man. Flike exhibits what seems like a human-level of feelings. He is hurt and disappointed with Umberto and walks off a short distance, pouting and refusing to come to him. When Umberto approaches him he stalks off a short distance; when Umberto coaxes him with a pine cone, Flike sulks. Finally, Umberto wins him back, inviting him to stand up for the pine cone. Soon, the two are hugging and then frolicking like two little pups.

Themes and Viewer Response: The principal theme of Umberto D. is the same, really, as that of other films of the Neo-realism period: poverty and social indifference is debilitating to the human spirit. After a lifetime of productive employment, Umberto has been abandoned in his old age and left in a deplorable state of subsistence existence. Although the resilience of his spirit is momentarily uplifting and his friendship with Flike downright exhilarating, viewers understand that when night falls on that final scene of the film, in Rome, Umberto will be sleeping on the ground under a bridge for the first time in his life. The politics of Neo-realism were akin to what we call liberalism in modern American politics – concern for the neediness segments of society.

Umberto D. shares liberal idealism with its two great predecessor De Sica films, Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief. In fact, together, they cover three of the most vulnerable categories of people in human society: children growing up in poverty (in Shoeshine), families in which the potential breadwinner is out of work (The Bicycle Thief), and the elderly (Umberto D.). The three films together comprise a kind of cross-section of liberal concerns. They also share similar stylistic characteristics: use of nonprofessional performers, leisurely pace, long segments depicting ordinary activities of life, melodrama, and a poetic lyricism. The first two films were very popular when released in Italy and made De Sica famous, but Umberto D. was a complete flop, home and abroad. When the first two films were released in 1946 and 1948, Italy was reeling from the devastating effects of World War II, economic depression, and widespread political corruption. Hopelessness and struggle were all-pervasive and a large portion of the public shared both the anguish inherent in Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief and the sense of anger at the political system for its failure to provide for the needs of the populace. By 1952, however, things had begun to improve significantly. The economy was reviving and the average Italian was beginning to feel optimistic about his or her life and future. The last thing that the Italian public wanted pushed in front of their faces at that point was a reminder that not all were being rescued by the national recovery. The ultimate irony and challenge for liberal ideology is that the only time you have the majority of an electorate with you is when the majority are needy. When a nation is devoid of resources, everyone is a liberal. When a nation is flush with resources, most who are riding the wave of prosperity lose interest in those left in the trough. The politics of the vast majority of people can be predicted by where their interests lie (rather than by values or ideals pertaining to the common good). Umberto D. was greeted not only with public indifference but with official hostility. De Sica was attacked by Giulio Andreotti (who later served seven terms as Prime Minister) in the political newspaper of the Christian Democratic Party: De Sica, he claimed, was guilty of “slandering Italy abroad” and “washing dirty laundry in public.” He demanded that De Sica maintain a commitment to “healthy and constructive optimism.” [DVD liner notes by Stuart Klawans]

The subjective nature of responses to films like Umberto D. can also be explored by comparing comments extracted from a sample of national reviews. Liberals will enjoy the film much more than conservatives. One reviewer, for example, finds the message highly relevant, “Umberto D. is rightly held as a classic. It is a reflection of the abject poverty of the post-war period and it still resonates with many contemporary states of being across much of the world.” Another sympathetic soul describes the film as “the heartbreaking odyssey of a simple man seeking to obtain the most essential ingredients for a life . . .” Others, however, prefer not to be reminded about suffering of the less fortunate in our society. “Hankering to feel like crap? You need to spend more time with the Italian cinema of the 1950’s.” There are also differences from person to person as to which needy populations we will permit ourselves to feel concern about: “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.” By contrast, Roger Ebert applauds De Sica for avoiding “all temptations to turn its hero into one of those lovable Hollywood oldsters played by Matthau or Lemmon.” A person should not have to be adorable to deserve our concern for their opportunity to live life with dignity. Most children are adorable; most old people aren’t. It shouldn’t make a difference, but it is a lot tougher to mobilize political support for the plight of the impoverished elderly than impoverished children.

Prejudices in relation to the personal appeal of characters even bias perception of facts of the story. One reviewer states that “Umberto takes to renting his room to prostitutes” and another (one of the least sympathetic reviewers) that “he has to rent our his room during the day to prostitutes.” Both are wrong. It is the landlady who rents his room to prostitutes, much to Umberto’s consternation. The most conservative reviewer also states that Umberto is “a dying old man.” Nothing in the story indicates that Umberto is dying in any sense more than applies to all of us. He has no terminal illness. He is merely elderly. This same reviewer also finds a way to write-off Maria, calling her a “hooker.” Nothing in the film suggests she is a prostitute, though she has been sleeping with two different men. She works for a living as a maid. All of these biased perceptions are typical of the self-deluding tactics used by people who are well-off in order to justify shutting their eyes to the suffering of the needy. The wealthy take solace in viewing the troubles of the poor as the comeuppance for moral transgressions.

On a less political note, the response of viewers to this film also depends on the extent to which they can buy into the stylistic characteristics of Neo-realism. One such characteristic is the issue of pace and simplicity. Neo-realism slows pace and intentionally focuses on the simplicities of daily routines. For one reviewer, “watching him walk slowly down stairs or through the town, or watching the maid ground coffee for several minutes, is almost painful.” Yet, for another, “the film pulses with tension, because we know how desperate Umberto’s situation is.” Another critic calls the “long silent coffee-grinding scene” “one of the film’s most striking sequences.” For those brought up on a steady diet of action films, however, it’s hard to slow down and smell the roses.

Performances: Like most performers in movies of the Neo-realism period, Carlo Battisti was not a professional actor. He was a seventy-year-old professor at Florence University in the field of Comparative Philology . De Sica spent many days scouring Italy for the right individual for the part, knowing that the man had to possess a “sorrowful dignity.” Battisti never performed in another film. By contrast, Maria Pia Casilio, though another non-professional discovery of De Sica, went on to have a long career as an actress. The two professionals in the cast were Lina Gennari, the landlady, and Flike, a trained dog and “professional actor.” Both provided solid complement to the two principals.

Bottom-Line: The Criterion DVD of Umberto D. is phenomenal. This is the first time I’ve seen one of the De Sica films in a restored edition and it is a marvel to behold. Usually, when we talk about image clarity, the ideal that we espouse is as much clarity as possible, given the source material available. Ironically, that standard is not what applies here because De Sica intentionally filmed his films of the Neo-realism period with a graininess that would add to the sense of realism. Criterion has fully respected that intention. I previously rated both Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief at four stars, but would have rated them at five were the prints of the quality of this one. The DVD has several fine extras, including a long documentary made for Italian television about De Sica and an interview with actress Maria Pia Casilio.

I highly recommend this moving film. Other directors have attempted to mimic the realism of De Sica and his contemporaries, but none have succeeded in combining that realism with the poetic lyricism of De Sica that makes it all so palatable and rewarding. Some may find this film overly sentimental, but the fact of the matter is that the sentiment is all inherent in the situations. Had he chosen to do so, De Sica could have milked this story shamelessly. Instead, he lets the moments speak to viewers with a quiet dignity.


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You might want to check out these other excellent films from Italy:

Amarcord
L’Avventura
The Bicycle Thief
Christ Stopped at Eboli
Cinema Paradiso
The Conformist
Death in Venice
Divorce Italian Style
The Dreamers
Eclipse
8 ½
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
General della Rovere
The Last Emperor
The Leopard
Life is Beautiful
Malèna
Mamma Roma
Miracle in Milan
The Night of the Shooting Stars
Nights of Cabiria
La Notte
Padre Padrone
Il Postino
Rocco and His Brothers
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Shoeshine
The Son’s Room
The Spider's Stratagem
Star Maker
Swept Away
Teorema
The Tree of Wooden Clogs


Recommend this product? Yes


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UMBERTO D., from director Vittorio De Sica, is a simple, heartbreaking tale about the life of an elderly pensioner. Penniless and alone, with only the...
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UMBERTO D., from director Vittorio De Sica, is a simple, heartbreaking tale about the life of an elderly pensioner. Penniless and alone, with only the...
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