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In the title role, De Sica cast a non-professional actor - Carlo Battisti (a University of Florence professor in real life) - who delivers a heart-breaking performance without resorting to easy sentimentality or grand theatrics. Reportedly, De Sica first met Battisti on a Roman street where the latter was on his way to give a lecture and offered him the role.
Critics and film scholars alike have noted the many similarities between Umberto D. and De Sica's earlier masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief (1948). The De Sica entry in the 1974 edition of Current Biography noted "there are many parallels to be drawn in the depiction of the central friendship: Ricci loses and refinds his son Bruno; Umberto loses his dog and eventually discovers it in the pound, destined for the gas chamber; Bruno hits his son and is temporarily estranged from him; Umberto loses his dog's trust when, having failed to find it a better home, he contemplates their double suicide under a passing train. All the incidents are seamlessly woven into a beautifully observed texture of simple lives..."
In an October 1955 editorial in The New York Times, De Sica wrote "Umberto D. is the film that I prefer among all those I have made, because in it I have tried to be completely uncompromising in portraying characters and incidents that are genuine and true. I have sought with great humility to approach the true, poetic and limpid style of the great Robert Flaherty....What is the meaning of the film? It seeks to put on the screen the drama of man's inability to communicate with his fellow man. The economic condition of Umberto is not what concerns us. What concerns us is his moral and human relationship to society. What concerns us is the loneliness of an old man. Men do not communicate with one another, how then can they communicate with Umberto, who, moreover, is an old man?...This is the story of Umberto D., that is to say, of a man like ourselves."
Unfortunately, Umberto D. was attacked in its own country by Giulio Andreotti, a junior Minister of Culture who accused the film of airing the country's "dirty laundry" in public and saw it as a personal attack on Italy's government. As a result, Umberto D. was withheld from distribution in the U.S. for three years and, for a while, all Italian films after Umberto D. which were deemed unflattering to Italian society were denied international distribution as well. It also didn't help that Umberto D. performed poorly at the box office in Italy. Nevertheless, the film went on to international acclaim including an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Film.
In Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy) (2002), Martin Scorsese's passionate documentary on Italian cinema, the director says, "As powerful as The Bicycle Thief was, for me, De Sica and Zavattini's greatest achievement together was Umberto D....a great movie about a hero of everyday life. That was De Sica's precious gift to his father. And to us."
The Criterion DVD of Umberto D. will be a revelation to those who haven't seen this masterwork since repertory screenings of it prior to 2001. Featuring a new high-definition digital transfer, made from restored elements with new and improved English subtitling, De Sica's film has finally been given the showcase presentation it deserves. And as usual, Criterion doesn't disappoint with its array of extras; there is a new video interview with Maria Pia Casilo (in the film she plays Maria, the young maid, who befriends Umberto), a 55-minute documentary on the director made for Italian television in 2001 entitled That's Life: Vittorio De Sica, a new essay by film critic Stuart Klawans and articles by Umberto Eco, Luisa Alessandri, and Carlo Battisti.
For more information about Umberto D., visit The Criterion Collection. To order Umberto D., go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeff Stafford