Vittorio De Sica referred to Umberto D. as his favorite from among an extensive filmography that spanned four decades, encompassing at least two pillars of the Italian neorealist movement (Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves), as well as frothier confections of the commedia all’italiana variety like Marriage Italian Style. It’s easy to see why De Sica gives it the nod: Umberto D. is an almost perfect blend of subtly rendered social commentary and intimate drama of a decidedly humanistic stamp. Certainly, given the film’s attendance on the affectionate relationship between an aged pensioner and his gregarious mutt, Umberto D. lays itself wide open to allegations of rank sentimentality that were often leveled against the neorealist movement as a whole. This may even hold true in part, especially with regard to the film’s unabashed tearjerker finale (significantly, the one scene De Sica later regretted including in the final cut). Nevertheless, Umberto D. contains some of the most astringent observations on social irresponsibility this side of Roberto Rossellini’s brutal Germany Year Zero.
Poverty (of communication as well as means), mixed signals, and crossed purposes—these are the building blocks of screenwriter Cesare Zavattini’s assiduous script. The opening street demonstration led by picketing pensioners, a scene seemingly wrenched from contemporary newsreels, slowly zeroes in on the blandly anonymous person who will emerge as the film’s protagonist. This delay tactic effectively situates the economic struggle that comes to define the existence of retired public servant Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti): to eke a respectable bourgeois living out of the pittance the government allows him. Even so, the burden of responsibility lays not only on official shoulders, as it’s soon revealed that Umberto’s difficulties are as much his own doing, having run up sizeable debts.
Umberto D. camouflages its individual strain of societal neglect under the slightest of means: an offhand remark that cuts to the bone, a matronly hausfrau’s contemptuous appraisal, the shillyshallying of an old friend eager to circumvent Umberto’s importunate demands. Umberto’s landlady (Lina Gennari) is an especially uncaring exemplar of upward mobility, unwilling to accept his partial rent payment for no better reason than she’s scheming to toss him out on his ear, all the better to accommodate her extreme domestic makeover. Particularly affecting is the scene where Umberto returns to his room, only to find the already ant-infested wallpaper in tatters, and a massive hole in the wall that adjoins his landlady’s living room.
Besides Umberto’s constant canine companion, Flike (Napoleone), the only sympathetic figure he encounters over the course of his travails is wide-eyed housemaid Maria (Maria Pia Casilio). For her, too, it’s only a matter of time until she’s out on the street. Once the landlady discovers she’s pregnant, she’ll be let go in the name of propriety. Umberto offers her some patented avuncular advice, but for all her good deeds toward him, like visiting him in the clinic when he’s laid up with tonsillitis, he’s more absorbed in his own plight than concerned for her wellbeing. As much as Flike provides the film’s requisite quotient of heartwarming, he’s also the impetus behind several of Umberto D.‘s darkest scenes: After the landlady deliberately allows Flike to escape his room, Umberto hunts for his pooch at the local pound, where the sight of a cage full of strays being wheeled into a gas chamber surely must have recalled images from Nazi concentration camps. Tellingly, De Sica and Zavattini set aside a moment to profile an impoverished owner who must choose between his beloved pet and the cost of setting the dog free. Moreover, the film’s bittersweet finale finds Umberto contemplating suicide. Only Flike’s terrified response and subsequent flight into a nearby park convinces him otherwise.
Umberto D. is rich in visual details unveiled in fleeting, meaningful moments—often through the elaborately expressive vocabulary of gesture and body language—and captured with impeccable precision by DP G. R. Aldo's masterful monochrome camerawork. Aldo and the film's set designers also convey the atmosphere of decrepitude that pervades Umberto's living quarters, in startling contrast to his landlady's rococo notions of petit-bourgeois respectability. Criterion's 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray upgrade markedly enhances the film's clarity and fine detail, and deepens the dimensionality in shots that utilize any significant depth of field, as in that famous, infinitely receding, final shot. The Italian mono track is sufficiently robust.
Carried over from Criterion's 2003 DVD, the supplements for Umberto D. include a 12-minute interview with actress Maria Pia Casilio, who passed away earlier this year. Casilio reminisces about being discovered by Vittorio De Sica at the age of 15, the director's use of her in later films (he called her his good luck charm), and her subsequent career in cinema, mostly in smaller roles. Nearly an hour long, "That's Life: Vittorio De Sica" assembles copious interviews and behind-the-scenes footage into this diverting retrospective, profiling De Sica as both actor and director. The accompanying booklet features an essay by critic Stuart Klawans, who defends the film's sentimental streak and discusses the film's disastrous domestic reception. The booklet also includes reflections on Umberto D. from De Sica and Carlo Battisti. On the other hand, Umberto Eco's insightful piece on the film's ill-omened domestic reception, which appeared as a text-only extra on the DVD, is conspicuous in its absence.
Umberto D. wants to break your heart. Criterion's spit-polished Blu-ray upgrade makes that prospect all the more beguiling.