Sunday 28 January 2007

Umberto D (1952) Vittorio de Sica

Old people apparently don't bring much appeal to the moviegoing public because there are so few films out there with the elderly in leading roles. However this is yet another example of why there should be more of them. Carlo Battisti is far from the only elderly man in this film but he's the most prominent one, the Umberto D of the title, and he's a joy to watch. He's Umberto Domenico Ferrari, a retired civil servant and he does seem to be up against it. He's trying to live decently but he has a bad chest and a dog to look after, and the rent takes over half his money every month, even though he's living in an ant-infested building where the landlady rents out his room to prostitutes during the day. He considers various alternatives, from friends to begging to suicide, but his little dog Flike gives him the answer to each.

Umberto D is apparently the crown of the Italian neo-realistic movement, both as its artistic pinnacle and its effective ending. Italian neo-realism dealt with grim realities that faced Italians after the second world war, especially poverty, and often used non-professional actors in important parts, often major ones like the title role here. The seventy year old Battisti had never appeared in a film before and he never would again. Apparently he was really a Professor of Glottology at the University of Florence, but there's something in him that works awesomely well as Umberto D. There's a deep sadness that pervades the entire film but is personified in this one character: he's a good man and he's worked hard all his life for his country but now there is nothing and he can't quite understand that.

There are heartrending scenes of massive power in Umberto D and I honestly couldn't imagine them being any more powerful performed by a professional actor. In fact much of the last half hour is breathtaking and much of that is due to Battisti and his little dog Flike. Credit is due to director Vittorio de Sica, composer Alessandro Cicognini, cinematographer G R Aldo and others, but on the screen it's Battisti and Flike. For a decent amount of time they're all that exist and if that isn't enough of an incentive to watch a movie, I don't know what is. This is an undeniable masterpiece, now a Top 250 film, and it makes me want to see de Sica's other Top 250 movie all the more. It's hard to imagine The Bicycle Thief being better than this, but it seems to be regarded so.

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