Saturday, 1 December 2012

UMBERTO D. - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of Vittorio De Sica's heartbreaker is an absolute must-own. KLYMKIW CHRISTMAS GIFT IDEA 2012 #9

A mutt with intelligent eyes.

In this continuing series devoted to reviewing motion pictures ideal for this season of celebration and gift giving, here is KLYMKIW CHRISTMAS GIFT IDEA 2012 #9: The exquisite Criterion Collection Blu-Ray (or, if you must, DVD) of UMBERTO D., Vittorio De Sica's Neo-realist masterpiece about post-war loneliness and loss that faces a grumpy, financially-beleagured old man.

Umberto D. (1952) *****
dir. Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Flike

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The old man Umberto (Carlo Battisti) must bid goodbye to the only thing he genuinely loves in the whole wide world, a tiny dog called Flike. He's so poor he must check himself into a hospital to treat a simple case of Tonsillitis. This allows him to get free meals for a few days so he can save enough money to avoid eviction.

Upon returning to his apartment he's well-rested and happily on the verge of clearing his debt to the horrid landlady (Lina Gennari) - one of the most despicable harridans in screen history. To his surprise, the room is not occupied by one of the many couples indulging in sordid extramarital bliss, courtesy of the landlady's entrepreneurial disrespect and abuse of Umberto's indebtedness to her by hiring the old man's bed out for boinking.

Instead, an invasion of busy tradesmen have rendered his usually neat and orderly digs topsy-turvy. In his absence the landlady feared he'd not return from the hospital and went ahead with preparing his room for new tenants.

The worst news of all is that his dog, his only true friend, his beloved Flike, is gone - carelessly let out into the streets by the landlady's friendly, warm-hearted maid (Maria-Pia Castillo) who is distracted by a three-month-old illegitimate child growing in her belly.

Umberto races to the municipal dog pound where he witnesses the stark reality of what happens to stray dogs like his sweet, little Flike. He witnesses the animals in cages, yelping for salvation. He sees the horrifying death chamber for dogs not claimed or whose owners cannot pay the fines to release them. He witnesses the sad faces of the poor, the downtrodden dregs of humanity, who, like Umberto, have been beaten down by poverty. Umberto is flush with rent money to rescue his Flike, if only his dog was there to be rescued. Others are not so lucky. They truly have nothing and can only shrug their shoulders in despair and resignation that without sufficient funds, their pets will not be saved from the deadly gas chamber.

In desperation, Umberto tries to describe Flike to the dog pound's cucumber-cool pencil pushing bureaucrat:

"He's a mutt, with intelligent eyes," Umberto gasps. "White, with brown spots."

It's an apt description - one to be expected from an intelligent man, though a man who's been discarded and forgotten by society. After a lifetime of service, of hard work, Umberto's been relegated to a strife-filled existence, receiving a measly pension that barely covers his rent.

Umberto's sad, desperate face and pleading eyes look for compassion, but most of all, seek the tiny dog he loves. For most, however, this is a cruel world, especially for those who are old and poor.

Post-war Italy during the late 1940s and early 1950s was director Vittorio De Sica's cinematic playing field. This is where he told tales of poverty, focussing upon the disenfranchised of society. The Bicycle Thief (AKA Bicycle Thieves), the immortal tale of a man searching for his only mode of trasnport and livelihood is De Sica's best remembered tale from this period. It's a great picture and so is Umberto D.

So many (mostly young) contemporary viewers (and even reviewers who should know better) have mistakenly attributed the sort of juvenile laziness permeating the mumble-core nonsense of recent times with the period of neorealism and what it represents. When they actually see the real thing, they're shocked, if not downright disappointed that neorealist movies have great, classically structured stories with performances (often by non-professional actors) that blow away many thespians of the pro variety and certainly the majority of losers who mumble their way through American indie pictures lauded by festival directors, pseuds and other supporters of self-indulgence.

Neorealism in Italy defined an entire generation of post-war filmmakers and created a style unique to its time and place and yet, in so doing, created work of lasting value. It also changed movies. Prior to this period, many films were studio bound, but the Italians, forced by budget and circumstance, shot on actual locations - something that did not take long to filter down to Hollywood.

The deeply moving screenplay by Cesare Zavattini would have worked beautifully if it had been made at an earlier juncture on the magnificent studio sets of Cinecitta with professional actors and all the lavish trappings of big budget Italian production from before World War II. Would it have been as good? Probably not. What roots Zavattini's finely wrought narrative and brilliantly etched characters is precisely how De Sica chose to make the film - in pure neorealist tradition. Real locations, real background extras and an utterly astounding performance by Carlo Battisti as the title character.

Battisti was NOT an actor. He was a linguist and university professor. Umberto D. was his first and last film as an actor - something that to this day seems utterly, almost unbelievably insane. He's got a great mug and his delivery (vocal and physical) is naturalistic in ways we expect from our greatest actors. (That said, the best university lecturers are brilliant performers and as such, can often make GREAT actors.)

The locations and background extras are all the real thing. The horrific aforementioned sequence at the dog pound is the real thing - a real pound, real dogs, real dog catchers, a real gas chamber, a real dog executioner, a real hose washing down the floors of butchery and most heartbreakingly, real people looking to claim their real animals.

During the film's opening, there's a stunning sequence where hundreds of old men protest the treatment seniors receive at the hands of an uncaring government. Again, the streets are real, the men are real and so are the police who disperse the crowds.

Then there is the reality of both character and narrative beats. Umberto's repeated attempts to sell his watch for money to pay his landlady are both sad and pathetic. We've seen this before (or even done it ourselves) in life. When Umberto meets a kind, friendly gentleman who could actually be his friend, we cringe when Umberto pulls out his watch and attempts to sell it.

Zavattini structures the film in a classic three-act mode of delivery. The actions driving each act are not mere plot devices, but seek to expose a sense of reality to Umberto's lot in life and in so doing, we're delivered a powerful series of beats that are recognizable to us as the sort of life trajectories that plague so many.

The three main actions of the story are separation, reunification and extrication. Within the context of an old man who essentially decides that suicide is his only way out of a cycle of misery, these actions are utterly devastating.

Love is what can save this man who lives a life without it. Unbeknownst to him, love is staring him in the face, but he sadly doesn't stare back - to see it, to recognize it, to feel it. Umberto is someone who always chose to live his life alone, dedicated to his work, but with dignity.

Alas, the world seems to become even harsher by the film's end and a life lived with grace and purity feels like a luxury.

De Sica takes us on the road of one man's life - a life that could belong to any one of us. Umberto's journey is harrowing, to be sure, but we're all the better for taking it with him.

"Umberto D." is available on the Criterion Collection as both Blu-Ray and DVD. The extra features are bounteous and the transfer is utter perfection. The added attraction is the superb 2001 documentary made for Italian TV entitled "That's Life: Vittorio De Sica".