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There aren't many genuine films about aging, but there has never been any shortage of movies that sling sweet baloney about being old. For every insightful masterpiece like Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), there are hundreds of doses of claptrap, telling us that growing old is only a matter of becoming young again, or being peacefully decrepit in the service of the young characters' story, or acting as a source of patronizing comedy should the aged character in question decide to have sex or ski or dance. In recent times it's hardly better - with the extraordinary exception of David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999), recent American moviemakers tend to regard the aged only as curmudgeonly clowns, from Space Cowboys (2000) to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011). Certainly, the moral punch of a postwar "art film" classic like Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. (1952) can be bruising, if only for the movie's unblinking consideration of how society squeezes out the unwanted elderly. Heavily lauded in the '50s and nearly forgotten now, De Sica's miniaturist tragedy carries a lot of textural baggage, from its cruelly overweening score to its neo-realist half-gestures. But, as in the more pivotal Bicycle Thieves (1948), De Sica's attention to social terror and disregard for narrative valves gives the film a queasy immediacy.
After all, as Pete Townshend would have it, you can't pretend that growing older never hurts. Umberto D. does hurt, though its position as a paradigm of Italian neo-realism is iffy: as with so many of that overrated national movement's staples, its proletariat grit is more a matter of Cesare Zavattini's screenplay than of De Sica's visuals. (Realism for De Sica never meant anything as gauche as an unpretty shot or an unstudied composition.) Even so, "realism" counts for more than visual grit here - Zavattini's focus and courage are impossible to ignore. The movie opens with an oddly surreal ker-pow: a mob of retired Italian government workers massing in a street protest for a pension raise. Once they are all dispersed by a tolerant postwar militia, the titular retiree (played by fussy non-pro Carlo Battisti, for years an esteemed linguistics professor in Florence) emerges as the sorriest of his winded pals: penniless, alone, on the edge of eviction, befriended only by a tiny terrier who eats thanks to Umberto's daily soup kitchen bait-and-switch.
Umberto's path to penury is a slickly-oiled plummet, and De Sica often holds his camera's stare with formidable steadiness worthy of Bresson. Likewise, Zavattini's script is wholly concerned with the characters' "dailiness," as he has put it, and the accumulation of ritual, disappointment, worry and bad luck gradually squashes the naive notion of deliverance we may've been harboring as moviegoers. Patiently observed sequences - like the boarding house's maid (a hypnotically desolate Maria Pia Casilio) waking, watching a cat cross a filthy skylight, making coffee, stretching to shut a door with her outstretched toe - are weighted with menacing unhappiness, and Umberto's life becomes a series of increasingly plausible glimpses of homeless misery. The pressures are revealing: his upwardly mobile landlady seeks to oust him so she can renovate the place; Umberto is forced to feign illness so he can be hospitalized and escape his rent, but when he returns he finds his flat turned into a bourgeois blast crater, wrecked amidst demolition and construction, and so he's on the street. Soon enough suicide seems the only viable option. The entire last section of the film involves Umberto's efforts to secure a home for his faithful little terrier before he offs himself, but these fail as well, leaving the old man with the choice of abandoning the animal or taking him down, too.
At its heart, Umberto D. is a horror film - a lost grope through an upside-down world. It's resolve and ethical will is so pure it's easy to overlook the aspects of the film that don't age quite as well: De Sica makes the occasionally crude filmmaking decision (a moment of suicidal angst is illustrated with a shove-zoom to the pavement below), the supporting cast is prone to typical Italian extroversion, and the film in general is far too in love with stupid pet tricks. This is certainly one Italian neo-realist tale that did not require the usual injections of Italian emphasis, and for the most part De Sica is restrained and concentrated. That said, Umberto D. might be the most devastating pet-owner tragedy-romance this side of Old Yeller (1957), with Umberto's eager and uncomprehending pooch Flike (Napoleone) becoming the cattle prod with which De Sica electrocutes our tear ducts.
We still should not undervalue the temerity and nerve of the few filmmakers who have taken on this kind of uncommercial subject matter and done so with a taste for the unpleasant truth. (Japanese culture has always been troubled by its treatment of the elderly, with Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru, released the same year as Umberto D., as a particularly potent requiem for Methuselah in a culture madly centered on the young.) Particularly today, when most movies are devised and crafted only with the seemingly bottomless-pocketed 12-to-25 demographic in mind, a sensitive but scalding shower like Umberto D. (reputed to have been Ingmar Bergman's favorite film at one point) can seem like an act of rectitude, a furious call from the pulpit of pure humanism.
Producer: Amato, De Sica, Rizzoli
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini (story and screenplay)
Cinematography: G. R. Aldo
Music: Alessandro Cicognini
Film Editing: Eraldo Da Roma
Cast: Carlo Battisti (Uberto Domenico Ferrari), Maria Pia Casilio (Maria, la servetta), Lina Gennari (Antonia Belloni - la padrona di case), Ileana Simova (La donna nella camera di Umberto), Elena Rea (La suora all' ospedale), Memmo Carotenuto (Il degente all'ospedale).
by Michael Atkinson