Umberto D. Movie Review

Hankering to feel like crap? You need to spend more time with the Italian cinema of the 1950s, and Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. would be a great place to start.

Shot four years after his famous The Bicycle Thief, De Sica returns to his roots with a vengeance. No longer content to put a lower-class laborer into an even deeper hellhole, this time the melodramatic director gives us a dying old man, his dog, and a pregnant maid, none of whom are destined for futures we'd describe as happy. Old man Umberto (played by non-actor Carlo Battisti; none of the cast in the film are pros) is so poor is landlady rents out his room during the day to prostitutes to help with the bills. (It's just as well; he's looking for someone to take his puppy so he can off himself.)

And so it goes, for about an hour and a half, as Umberto's life slips ever closer to suicide -- or will he? Breathe easy -- people in De Sica's films always tend to squeak by... though one gets the feeling death's grip is lurking just around the corner.

It's that blatant familiarity that makes Umberto D. feel so derivative and, well, plain. It's like watching a documentary about the Great Depression on The History Channel. Poverty abounds. Solutions are nowhere to be found.

If not for Bicycle coming four years earlier, it would be easy to find more to like in the film. But Battisti just doesn't generate the same pathos that Lamberto Maggiorani (the victim of Bicycle) is able to generate. Both were guys off the street, discovered by De Sica. But Maggiorani had a quality that made him into a minor star who appeared in more than a dozen films. Battisti never acted again (though admittedly, he was an old man).

If anyone steals the show, oddly, it's the dog. I'm a cat person myself, but that little dog totally owns the picture. By the end, Umberto stands next to a train track holding the pup. Will he jump in front of the oncoming engine? Who cares? Just put the little dog down and we can all go home happy... or at least happy enough not to follow suit.

The new Criterion disk adds an Italian TV spot about De Sica, an interview with Maria-Pia Casilio (she plays the hooker), and a lovely printed essay booklet.

Comments

Umberto D. Rating

" OK "

Rating: NR, 1952

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