21 October 2005

100 films: Umberto D.

starring: Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Ileana Simova, and Elena Rea

written by: Cesare Zavattini and Vittorio De Sica

directed by: Vittorio De Sica

NR, 91 min, 1952, Italy

A simple love story between an old man and his dog, Umberto D. was controversial upon its release in Italy, panned by several critics, and shelved for a time in various places, but in the end it survived to get an Oscar nomination and become one of De Sica's best loved films.

It took a nationwide search of bread lines and pensioners to find Carlo Battisti, who turns in an amazing performance in this, his only film. Battisti manages to find the inner sorrow necessary for the role of Umberto Domenico Ferrari, a public works employee of 30 years who's pension is insufficent to provide for him and his dog and is facing eviction. Maria-Pia Casilio, another non-actor, plays the sympathetic maid who befriends Umberto and is hiding a pregnancy from the landlady so she can keep her job. Both give performances that far exceed any expectations of anyone with their lack of experience.

Umberto is trying to raise the money for his back rent, but is unwilling to outright beg for charity. He's unable to sell what little dignity he has left. However, his watch and prized books are sold at a fraction of their worth, and it's clear as he's forced to lower his asking price that this is the last hope for a man trying to stay afloat. Through it all, he has his dog Filke for comfort, but when he disappears while Umberto's in the hospital, we see the seeds of panic in his eyes and the absolute relief when Filke is recovered.

There isn't much of note in the direction and camera work. Much like Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, De Sica knows that for the film to work, we must focus on Umberto, so he allows us to do just that while reminding us just how powerless he really is. There's nothing left for Umberto; he hasn't a chance in the world. All he has is a devoted dog, and sometimes that's all you need.