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The definitive “man’s best friend” movie is about so much more

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s Pets Week here at The A.V. Club, so we’re recommending movies about the sometimes sweet, sometimes weird, always meaningful relationship between people and animals.


Umberto D. (1952)

Umberto D. is usually described as a movie about a man and his dog—maybe even the movie about a man and his dog—which makes it all the more surprising for first-time viewers to discover just how much of it centers on Maria (Maria Pia Casilio), the pregnant teenage maid who befriends penniless retiree Umberto (Carlo Battisti) and his canine sidekick, Flike. One of those modest masterpieces that defined Italian neorealism, Umberto D. trades in pathos of the Chaplin variety, which means that the figure of the poor and decent man—seemingly out-of-time—must be counterbalanced by a young and naive girl. The movie expresses itself through contrasts; it’s so sad because parts of it are so funny, and so touching because it is, at times, very cruel.

Its sense of construction—in which the simple relationship between a man and his dog becomes all the more affecting because of how it contrasts with his relationship to his fellow men—is usually credited to screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. That, however, tends to undervalue just how much the movie stakes on silence, inference, and the performance of its human lead, a linguistics professor who had never acted before and would never act again. The central image—the lonely pensioner followed by a faithful pooch—could be sentimental fluff, fit only for greeting cards, but director Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves) carefully manages it until it becomes sublime. Great movies get that way by risking ridicule. This is one of them.

Availability: Umberto D. is available on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray, which can be obtained through Netflix or your local video store/library. It can also be streamed through Hulu Plus.

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