Sunday, 13 September 2015

"Umberto D.," Vittorio De Sica, Film Review

"Umberto D.," Vittorio De Sica, Film Review

A black and white film in the IMDB top 250 list has to have weathered the storm of cretins that keep voting the Lord of the Rings trilogy into the top 10, and the result is that the few B&W films that survive are usually pretty good.  Umberto D. is no exception, although doubtless its IMDB status has benefited from the film being a tearjerker with a cute dog.  Don't worry, this is no Marley & Me, but rather a thoughtful film about a retired civil servant by neorealist Italian director Vittorio De Sica.


Anyone who's owned a dog knows that – like children – they bring heartache as well as joy.  All the more so, given dogs' short lifespans and host of untreatable illnesses.

So the companionship that Flick gives the character Umberto Ferrari in this film comes with responsibility.  However little Umberto thinks of his own life, he can't bring himself to abandon his dog before he goes.  He finally decides a double suicide is the only answer but the dog has other ideas, and the dog's simple love of life is the only slight ray of light at the end of the film.

The force of machines against weak man is seen at the beginning and end of the film.  One of the first scenes includes an overhead shot of a tram shoving through a crowd of demonstrating pensioners, and at the end the train that Umberto intended to use for his suicide blasts past so violently you can almost smell it.

Review continues below...

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Umberto's loneliness and isolation is shown in all its nasty reality.  People are only interested in what they can get out of him.  His only human friendships are with the maid in his boarding house and with the patient in the next bed when he ends up in a hospital run by nuns.  Religion is conspicuous by its absence for most of the film.  The only use it serves Umberto is to extend his stay in the hospital when he flatters the nun sister by requesting a rosary.

The film is driven by a series of problems presented to its characters – Umberto must find money to avoid being evicted; the maid is pregnant by one of two soldiers; Umberto loses his dog and must find him; he can't find a good home for his dog; he can't find a way to die.

What's less traditional for a plot, but more true to life, is that there are no easy answers found to any of these problems.  Umberto's old friends won't loan him the money; he doesn't find a new home for the dog; he does lose his room regardless of the money; he can't find a way to die; the maid will lose her job because of her pregnancy; she can't return to her village because she'd be beaten; she can't persuade either of her boyfriends to commit to her.

The landlady and her grim friends continue their party-filled lives around Umberto with no compassion whatever for his position or for his illness.

'Do you think there'll be war?' asks Umberto's old work colleague, having refused him a loan.  The war echoes throughout the film.  In the pound, stray dogs are gassed behind closed doors.  And the uncaring attitude of people towards their fellow man seems to sum up the conditions that allowed the war atrocities to occur in the first place, along with the general willingness to abandon to death the old, weak and useless.

Only the innocence of children seems to be untainted.  The maid is child-like and is still at school.  She deals with life in a simple manner throughout.  And Umberto tries to give his dog to a young girl, who is delighted at the idea – but the plan is soon stopped by adults.  The dog's playful and joyous attitude to life also links in with the theme of childhood.

A young audience today might scoff at Umberto's complaint that he has served thirty years in the government, given the state of their own pensions, but seeing human nature through the mirror of a poor and different society from today's world is fascinating, made all the more interesting by De Sica's constant refusal to manufacture glib answers.

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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