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Ben Mankiewicz - TCM Host
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Ben's Top Pick for March

Umberto D. - March 1

If you love dogs, it's hard to imagine recommending a movie more enthusiastically than Umberto D. If you don't love dogs, what's wrong with you? That said, to call Umberto D. a dog movie is to vastly oversimplify this aggressively honest look at growing old--and doing it alone.

Vittorio De Sica's movie--from Cesare Zavattini's story and screenplay--is a relentless account of the isolation of its title character: a retired bureaucrat barely sustaining himself with his government pension and facing eviction from the single room he rents in a Rome apartment. With the exception of the maid who tends to his landlady, others treat Umberto with a mixture of two emotions: apathy and hostility. When he tries to borrow money from an old collegue, he's treated as if poverty is contagious, as if looking Umberto in the eye might blind you. The message is clear: with poverty comes shame.

Forgotten by his government, shunned by friends, evicted by his landlord, Umberto has one ally: Flike, his small dog. When Umberto checks into the hospital with what he fears (perhaps hopes) is a life threatening illness, he leaves Flike with the maid, only to discover someone has left the door open--I'm certain it was the landlady--and Flike is out in the world.

So Umberto--broke and alone--sets out to rescue Flike from extermination when he's brought to a city pound. But as his own situation deteriorates--he has no place to live and no manner to improve his lot--perhaps Umberto comes to believe the fate Flike faced at the pound is an appropriate solution to his situation. But suicide is only a realistic choice for Umberto if he first finds a suitable home for Flike.

As one of the signature films of the Italian neorealist movement, there's not a moment in Umberto D. that feels false. Even the connection between man and dog is handled without a touch of movie sentimentality. The dog doesn't teach Umberto a lesson nor does Umberto come to realize life is about the journey, not the destination. De Sica has something to say in Umberto D., there's no doubt (reportedly, it was one of his favorite films--and one of Ingmar Bergman's favorites, too), but this is no message movie. I think what De Sica wants us to do is look, really look, at the things that make us uncomfortable, at the truths we don't want to confront.

Typical of neorealist films, De Sica used non-professional actors, including Carlo Battisti as Umberto. After you see this film you'll be stunned to learn Battisti had never acted before--he was a university lecturer. He owns this movie. And his little dog, too.

by Ben Mankiewicz