Friday, October 22, 2010

Film #36: Umberto D. (1952)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Initial Release Country: Italy

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Financially strapped geezer getting elbowed out of apartment ponders suicide. Has a cute dog.

Uncut Version (Full plot synopsis, spoilers and all. Fair warning)

Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is a retired government pensioner in 1950 Rome. We see him with other retirees picketing for better pensions and learn that he is in some debt. This is only part of a larger problem, however.

Umberto owes most of his debt to his landlady, a self-absorbed social climber who has been raising Umberto's rent in order to force him out of her building. Umberto's only real friends seem to be his spunky little dog, Flike (pronounced like...well, “like”) and the pretty, guileless young maid (Maria-Pia Casilio) in his building. It doesn't take long to see that he is a rather lonely man who has no prospects to speak of. The only things that seem to keep him going are Flike and a mild sense of spite for the world around him, most notably his landlady.

Umberto and Flike in their dank, lonely apartment.

After becoming sick with a fever and spending some time in a public hospital, Umberto attempts to track down past friends and co-workers to borrow some of the money he needs to stay in his apartment. All of his efforts are, however, rebuffed. In the middle of hustling around, he loses Flike. After a nerve-wracking trip to the local pound, where he witnesses dozens of dogs put down, Umberto finds his trusty canine companion.

Following another bout of loan refusals from friends, Umberto comes a hair's breadth from panhandling on the street. His dignity, alas, does not allow him to stoop, though he tries to let Flike hold his hat out for a brief moment. At this point, he returns to his room, which is being stripped of his goods and remodeled around him. Despondent, he plans to end his own life by jumping in front of a train. Only one obstacle exists: Flike.

Umberto tries to find a boarding home for his dog, but cannot. He tries to give him to a young girl whom he knows, but her guardians will not allow it. He tries to fool Flike into running off with a group of young children in a park, but Flike will not part with his master. Resigned, Umberto decides that the only thing left for him is to take Flike in his arms and end both of their lives together.

Grabbing Flike and cradling him, Umberto slowly and slyly crosses the guard rails as a train comes. Just as the train roars close and he prepares to step in front, though, Flike resists and fights his way out of Umberto's arms, running from the tracks. Umberto runs after Flike, who is now too scared to come near his master. Rather than abandon Flike and turn his back on his own life, Umberto decides to coax Flike's trust back out of him and play catch. Our old pensioner has decided to live, as sparse as that life might be.

Man's best friend, indeed.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done before any research on the film)

This was an effort to get through.

I chalk this one up as another that fits in the category of “Great Films that I'll Never Watch Again”. I can't say that there's anything wrong with the movie. Judged on its own merit, it's brilliant. It does something that, at the time, was probably very new, and it has a genuine emotional impact in the end.

But God, did it take a long time to get there. And the movie is only 90 minutes long. It felt like 180 at times. Watching Umberto schlep around Rome from one miserable failure to the next was just plain depressing. It reminded me a lot of the only other De Sica movie I've seen: The Bicycle Thief. One unfortunate fellow with little to live for getting dumped on repeatedly by the people around him and life in general.

Doesn't sound like a fun viewing experience? It isn't.

As I said, though, I can't complain about any technical merits at all. The story is constructed well, the script seems decent (though what do I know – I don't speak Italian), the cast was solid, and the cinematography is incredible (probably the greatest strength, in fact). It's just that, in the end, I was left with a hollow feeling.

I must admit to how effective the sentimental aspects of the film are; namely, the relationship between Umberto and Flike. The three most striking scenes involve both characters: the rescue of Flike from the pound, Umberto having Flike hold out his hat to beg for money (for he's still too proud), and the grande finale of near-suicide/canicide. Still, I couldn't help but feel that this sentimentality was a bit cheap, as strong as it was.

This is a good example of one of the few Flike-less touching moments, when Umberto's desperation is high enough for him to consider begging:

Without knowing the exact history of cinema (though I'll be looking it up), this movie seems a forerunner of the French verite films of the 50s and 60s – that “realistic” approach that was rife with world-weariness and “everyday” problems, and the social ills that were the cause and/or effect. Those movies were hailed as edgy for their “realism” and their unflinching gaze at the uncomfortable truths of life. I hate them. They always seemed to have some sly tone of melancholy and apathy that was dressed up in a chic aesthetic, seeming to say “We're fashionable and hip, but we can be depressed, too.” Umberto D. has none of the fashion sense, but all of the sadness.

Of course, some movies are sad as hell and I still love them. For instance, Aronofsky's The Fountain or Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood For Love. Umberto D. is a whole other kind of sad, even if there is redemption in the end. There's a worn-in, all-too-familiar feel to the situations in De Sica's movie. Perhaps this was his point; he wanted to make people squirm as they looked at the fallout of a society that turns its back on the elderly. For Umberto, the only thing that saves him is his faithful mutt, though even that's unintentional on said mutt's part.

A movie like this just leaves me feeling that humanity is scum, and I don't really need cinema to feel that way. Just watching the evening news is enough.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research)

After dwelling upon this movie for several days, and reading several essays on it, I've softened my stance a little bit. I am still quite positive, though, that I'll never watch it again.

It seems that this movie, according to people who know a ton more than I, that Umberto D. marked a bit of a transitional era in film making. Prior to its release, Vittorio De Sica could seemingly do no wrong. He had been a shining acting star in the 20s and 30s, and his first several films has met with popular and critical acclaim in the mid-40s. Umberto D., however, bombed horribly within Italy. Why? The explanation offers some interesting insights.

De Sica's earlier films were what is known as “neorealist”, meaning that they eschewed formal actors, formal stories, and elaborate production for much more naturalistic tales told by non-professional actors. The idea was to present fictional tales that told tragic tales in a near-documentary style. This approach apparently struck a chord with people, as they saw it as revelatory and cathartic. They made a clear statement about the ills of society and their effect on the individual.

Umberto D., while still in a neorealist style, removed some of the core elements, namely the overt condemnation of social malfunctioning. When I think back on it, this is true. One is not really meant to see Umberto as the victim of some soulless government machine. He's simply a lonely man whose seclusion is as much his own doing as his environment's. This seems like a small change of pace, so why such a dramatic shift in reception within its home country?

According to this essay by Peter Becker, it was basically timing. In the 50s, as opposed to the 40s, there was an optimism washing through Italy that precluded the “airing of dirty laundry” to other countries through film. The government of this time, which had considerable influence on media, saw Umberto D. as a pointless look at a tiny pocket of quiet sadness that still dwelt within its own borders. Feeling that it cast a poor light on their country, they panned it and stifled any chance it had at commercial success in Italy. Such was not to be the case in other countries, however, as places like the U.S., France and England hailed it as a masterpiece.

Umberto as he awaits the oncoming train that he hopes will end his life.

On revisiting the sentimentality of the movie, which I initially felt was a bit base, I think that my opinion has been swayed by Stuart Klawans in this essay of his. He analyzes the purpose of Flike in the movie and makes a great case that sentimentality need not necessarily cheapen a film's emotional impact. He sums it up with the line, “ If the main character feels that his humanity itself is slipping away, his sense of being a proper man, then why shouldn’t he have a sentimental relationship with a dog?” Well put, and this point actually makes me feel much better about being choked up at the end of the film.

Here's the final scene, which can certainly be appreciated without having seen the rest of the film. Be warned - it's a spoiler if you're into the mystery of the tale:

Umberto D. - certainly an excellent movie, though one that you need to be in a somber mood for.
That's a wrap. 36 down. 69 to go.

Coming Soon: Singin' In The Rain (1952)

If this blog has taught you anything about me, it's that I hate musicals. This movie, surprisingly, is one that I've seen and remember liking. I'll see if my opinion holds after another viewing.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.