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Umberto D. (DVD)

If the Italian neo-realist movement could be said to have a definite endpoint, it would probably be Vittorio De Sica's 1952 film Umberto D., a huge international flop that was initially greeted with hostility at home and indifference abroad, but which has since resurfaced as a masterpiece. But apart from any fiscal reasons, the film may have ended neo-realism because it's arguably its greatest example, taking the movement to a point of aesthetic purity from which it had nowhere else to go. Unlike other landmark De Sica films, such as 1946's Shoe-Shine or 1948's The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D. doesn't press hard for sentiment or sweeping emotional crescendos, but simply embraces an old man's often-mundane attempts to survive another month and hold on to what little he has. Distinct echoes of De Sica's rigorous approach resonate in contemporary films by Abbas Kiarostami or the Dardenne brothers (especially Rosetta), which have advanced the same sort of formalized simplicity in revealing the world around their characters. True to its hero's spirit, the film values perseverance and dignity above any more ostentatious gestures, yet it's also touched by sequences that are almost Chaplin-esque in their quiet, graceful lyricism. The overall effect is still tremendously moving, but the tears don't roll from any proscribed big moments so much as De Sica's singular focus on his hero's daily struggle in a society that has ceased to care about him. Leading a cast mostly of fellow nonprofessionals, Carlo Battisti plays the old man with a startling absence of affect, reflecting only the emotions necessary from a character whose every decision is based on fundamental needs. Fighting to survive on a pitiful pension, Battisti faces eviction from his one-room hovel unless he can scrape together the 15,000 lire he owes in back rent. Far from sympathizing with his plight, his overbearing landlady (Lina Gennari) has already started renting out his space to couples by the hour, and sizing it up for an expansion on her living room. Though he gets some friendly counsel from young maid Maria-Pia Casilio, who herself is preoccupied with her pregnancy by an unknown father, Battisti's only real companion is his faithful dog Flike, who enjoys roughly equal respect. (These parallels come through in the film's most harrowing scene, in which Battisti searches for Flike in a massive dog pound where strays are officially "processed" with a chilling lack of compassion.) Left to fend for himself, Battisti pawns the few possessions he owns and even tries to save money by extending his stay at a hospital ward, where the bedridden are treated to free food and shelter. His staunch refusal to beg leads to a justly famous piece of silent choreography where he tentatively turns his palm up to passersby and quickly turns it down, only to coax Flike into an embarrassed compromise. In the end, Battisti's pride is more heartbreaking than the dire conditions that threaten to diminish it, because it's the only possession he isn't willing to sell, even if it kills him. On That's Life: Vittorio De Sica, a reasonably comprehensive 55-minute TV documentary that heads the disc's slim list of supplements, the director refers to Umberto D. as "the creation I love the most," in spite of his disappointment over its reception. Seen today, the film's unvarnished realism seems more bracing than anything De Sica made before or after, perhaps because it allows the audiences to connect directly with a man who's virtually invisible to everyone else. Or, as Umberto Eco eloquently puts it in a brief essay included on the disc: "For an hour and a half, I was in the company of a man alone with his dog, and I didn't feel lonely."


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