Vittorio De Sica’s story of a sad sack old pensioner and his adorable dog is the ultimate “check your pulse” movie. “Umberto D.” (1952) can thaw out the iciest hearts, burrow through the scaliest armor, and sucker punch the cagiest fighter. It doesn’t require a trained eye to see why. Yes, De Sica has much to say about the hard-scrabble life in post-war Italy and the lack of solidarity even among the working class that makes life miserable for anyone who falls on tough times but .. screw that, and just look at that dog! Look at little Flike, and look at at the way that poor Mr. Umberto looks at Flike, and watch Flike freaking save his master’s freaking life by being so damned lovable, and if you’re not crying then you, good sir or madam, are already dead.
Watch Umberto go to the dog pound in search of his missing Flike and cast terrified looks along one row of cages after another, even ones that are being wheeled into the gas chamber, And watch after several harrowing minutes that feel like forever as he finally sights on that little mutt with the brown eyes. Listen as he shouts “Flike!” and clutches his best friend right up next to his soul. And if you’re not crying, then I have some bad news for you: you’re broken.
It’s not just the dog. We have to give a little credit to Carlo Battisti, a linguistics professor and non-professional actor tapped by De Sica to play the title role because, in the growing tradition of Italian neo-realism, he looked right for the part. I won’t claim that a professional actor wouldn’t have worked in the role, but Battisti’s performance is so unaffected (De Sica allows the basic drama and the operatic music by Alessandro Cicognini to do the emotional heavy lifting) and pragmatic that he wouldn’t even have to look so damn much like your kindly, gruff, slightly vain grandfather for you to invest your sympathy with him unconditionally.
Umberto is about to be kicked out of his apartment by his selfish landlady because his meager pension makes it difficult to pay her exorbitant rent. She won’t listen to his pleas for leniency and she’s not the only one. Umberto is forced to sell off his modest possessions at bargain prices only to find that everyone becomes a cutthroat negotiator when they sense vulnerability.
De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini are completely unashamed about stacking the deck and tugging at the audience’s heartstrings as they send Umberto ought into the cruel world to either be taken advantage of or, just as bad, ignored completely. The biggest outrage: when Umberto needs change for a 1000 lire note to pay his cabbie (as he searches for lost Flike, of course) and is forced to buy a cheap souvenir glass because nobody cares enough to break the bill for him.
Even Umberto’s only non-canine friend, the young maid Maria (non-professional Maria Pia Casilio) only has so much time for him. She likes Mr. Umberto well enough, but she’s got problems of her own, most notably a bun in the oven and two bakers who don’t want credit for the job. Everyone has his or her own problems, and no time for anyone else’s. And that’s the problem.
But I’ve spent too much time not talking about Flike (played by Napoleone, one of the film’s few trained professionals) who is perhaps not that remarkable in the field of cinematic pooches. He performs only simple tricks and doesn’t rescue children from wells, but he is a bundle of pure affection who shines like a hairy, slobbering beacon in a grim, gray world. If Umberto is required, like the stereotypical Hollywood protagonist, to “learn something” in the course of the story, it’s that while the love of a dog may not be that difficult to earn, it is so potent and so focused that it is, in a word, enough. Enough to keep going. Enough even to dare to be happy for a moment. Enough to give us one the most emotionally resonant endings in movie history. And if you think that’s too sentimental, then you just haven’t met the right dog yet. Bravo, Flike!
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The high-def transfer still shows some signs of damage that must be present in the source material, including one brief shot where the image deteriorates noticeably, but overall the damage is fairly minor. Many scenes feature bright colors in the foreground (white clothes, for example) and in the background (white walls) which seems to provide a limit on just how sharp the image resolution can be: things look ever so slightly soft from time to time and I wonder if they had to make more digital tweaks than usual. Regardless, this is a very fine transfer of a 60 year old black-and-white film.
The LPCM Mono track doesn’t have much depth to it, but that’s endemic to the source material. The sometimes booming score sounds a bit too tinny which is a shame, but also probably can’t be helped. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.
The extras have been imported from the 2003 DVD release by Criterion.
“That’s Life” is a 2001 documentary by Sandro Lai shot for Italian TV (55 min.) This is a wonderful feature, that cedes the stage to De Sica and screenwriting partner Cesare Zavattini. Through archival interviews, they serve as guides/emcees through the director’s career. De Sica was a famous leading man before (and after) he became an accomplished director, and his showmanship and charisma are on display in every scene. This may not be jam packed with analysis, but it’s a very enjoyable time.
The disc also includes an interview (2003, 12 min.) with actress Maria Pia Casilio who talks about being discovered by De Sica who, of course, cast the non-professional because she looked the part.
We also get a lengthy trailer (4 min.)
The 16-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Stuart Klawans, an excerpt from De Sica’s introduction to the English-language edition of the script for his film “Miracle in Milan,” and an excerpt from an article by actor/professor Carlo Battisti.
“Umberto D.” was lambasted by political commentators on all sides of the aisle in Italy, being accused of being too pessimistic about both the working class and about the government’s efficacy. It was dubbed slanderous about a nation that still needed international redemption (though De Sica was already an Oscar favorite by then) and failed miserably at the box office.
It didn’t take long for it to be embraced as another triumph from one of the founding father of Italian neo-realism, however, and it has been making audiences cry for sixty years now. Criterion’s Blu-ray update isn’t flawless, but the transfer is a solid one. Unfortunately the extras remain fairly modest, and perhaps we would have expected more from a film of this stature. I don’t know if this a must-upgrade for those who own the old Criterion DVD, but it’s worthy of a strong recommendation for those who don’t.