Umberto D (1955)

Written by Vittorio De Sica & Cesare Zavattini, based on a story by Zavattini
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Starring Carlo Battisi, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari


Released by Criterion
Rating: NR
Region: 1
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.

My Advice: Own it.

The man's name is Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Battisi). He's an aged Italian pensioner who is in a bit of a spot. Part of his problem is financial in nature--he owes a scad of back rent to his tyrannical landlady (Gennari), who's going to boot him onto the street if he doesn't pay up completely...and now. The major part of his problem, though, seems to be he's positively alone in life, with no one to care for him and barely anyone who will listen--except for his dog, Filke. Oh sure, there's the housekeeper (Casilio), but she's got her own problems to deal with.

This is an interesting, fascinating film in which nothing really happens. That's easy to say, but yes, of course things do happen--but there's no real narrative to carry you through: it's just Battisi's performance as a man helpless and stuck in his own circumstance, and seemingly unable to catch a break. A great deal of time is spent on scenes where Battisi walks into a room, walks down the street, opens a window, comisserates with his dog--the normal, everyday things that you wouldn't normally go to a cinema for. Indeed, one has to wonder why one would want to sit down and watch a story that sounds, on the surface, to be terribly depressing. It's a lot like sitting down to play The Sims instead of actually, you know, going through the motions of real life yourself.

Well, the first thing is that the film isn't depressing. Sobering, yes, but it doesn't leave one feeling like--well, stepping out in front of a train. The idea of life someone manages to endure even in the face of solitude and decrepitude is an engaging one--it doesn't exactly uplift but it won't have you opening your veins. Secondly, the film is just gorgeous to watch. A sequence that struck me particularly is Castillo's character looking up through the windowed roof at a cat walking across it--something that carries no real significance, but seems to symbolize...what, exactly? The ambiguous and open ended meaning is almost attractive.

Lastly, Battisi's performance is quite impressive, especially considering--as we learn through the features--that the man could barely remember his lines. The reason it doesn't feel like you're watching an actor is because, well, you're not watching an actor. Battisi's a professor--apparently when he was approached on the streets to play the part, he thought he was being stopped by the authorities. The realism that Battisi brings is quite impressive, especially for one who had never dealt with being in front of a camera before.

As far as features go, it's the standard Criterion spread--which is to say, it's worthy. The centerpiece is a fifty-five minute documentary that aired on Italian television in 2001, which has De Sica as your host taking you through his career both as actor and director. It's extensive and very nice, and De Sica is a helluva stage personality. You also get an interview with Maria Pia Casilio, who De Sica literally picked out of a crowd to be in the film--an act which launched her on, what seems to be anyway, a long and successful acting career.

There's also some interesting takes on the film presented in text-on-screen, with Umberto Eco talking about what it felt like to be "Umberto E," an amusing anecdote from assistant director Luisa Alessandri, and actor Battisi on what it was like to still be identified with his character. Other writings come in the accompanying booklet, including an essay on the film by critic Klawans and some thoughts on the film from De Sica himself.

For those used to explosions and massive amounts of CG work, it might do some good to take a step back and watch a film that deals with the ordinary and the mundane, and yet somehow reimagines it into its own adventure in a way that Joyce would have been pleased with. Worth multiple viewings, so buy the thing.

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