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The Criterion Collection presents
Umberto D. (1952)

"Everyone takes advantage of the ignorant."
- Umberto D. (Carlo Battisti)

Review By: Robert Edwards   
Published: June 03, 2004

Stars: Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari
Director: Vittorio De Sica

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:29m:02s
Release Date: July 22, 2003
UPC: 037429176122
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-B+B B+

DVD Review

The story is simple: a retired civil servant, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), is in arrears on his rent, which his pension barely covers, and is reduced to asking his acquaintances for money and selling his meager possessions in order to survive. His landlady (Lina Gennari) wants to evict him at the end of the month, by any means necessary, and his only true friend, the maid Maria (Maria Pia Casilio) is in no position to help him.

Vittoria de Sica's Umberto D. was released in 1952, toward the end of the film movement known as "neo-realism." Along with De Sica, its primary practitioners—Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and screen-writer Cesare Zavattini—had all been active in the Fascist period in Italy, making so-called "white telephone" films, whose two-word appellation neatly summarizes their middle-class escapist nature. But the crushing poverty of the postwar era encouraged them to make a break with the past, not only in terms of subject, but also in style, and thus neo-realism was born.

The neo-realists wanted to create a dialectical cinema, in which the audience would actively analyze the daily lives of the Italian people, and in doing so come to an understanding of the social and political factors that determined their existence. Their films were shot on location, usually with non-professional actors, and the stories, most of them dealing with the deprivations of working-class characters, were filmed simply, with a minimum of flash and melodrama. De Sica's 1948 Bicycle Thieves, with its portrayal of an impoverished man whose only means of transportation is stolen by someone even poorer than he is, is in many ways the most typical of the neo-realist films.

Italian audiences were initially receptive to these films (although many achieved their greatest successes abroad), but by the early 1950s and Italy's economic revival, they were no longer interested in being reminded of earlier privations, and Umberto D. was a flop. In neo-realist terms as well, it was only a partial success. Although it's filmed simply, the film encourages an excess of sentimentality with regards to its protagonist, which is further exacerbated by the use of his dog Flike in an attempt to garner sympathy. There's no real attempt to understand the political factors that have reduced Umberto to his state of poverty, nor to provide him with a way out. Even if those elements had been present, the audience would have been discouraged from an analysis of his situation due to the strong emotions engendered by the film.

But perhaps it's best to remove one's neo-realist blinders, and in doing so, a different film comes to light. Sentimental, yes, but also touching in its portrayal of an old man, desperately trying to cling to his dignity in the face of crushing circumstances, and doing what's best for his beloved Flike. De Sica avoids melodrama, and generally sticks with the functional visual style typical of neo-realist films, although he does add some interest, mainly with the use of close-ups. There's also a spectacular scene where De Sica visually communicates Umberto's desperate contemplation of suicide, only to abandon the idea as he suddenly realizes the consequences for Flike.

The performances of Battisti and Maria Pia Casilio, both of them non-professionals, are also excellent. Battisti was a college teacher when De Sica chose him for the role, and he underplays beautifully, his mournful eyes revealing his unspoken emotions. Especially effective is a scene in which he's decided that he has to beg to survive, and hesitantly practices opening his hand to receive money while no one's around. Casilio, just 15 at the time, is wonderful in the role of the maid, who doesn't know which of two soldiers is the father of her child, and whose pregnancy means the loss of her job, with nowhere to go. Judged by the strict terms of neo-realism, Umberto D may not be a success, but it is interesting as an example of the movement, and rewarding simply as an affecting character study.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The restored full-screen image is mostly very good, with deep blacks, excellent contrast levels, and lots of detail. Occasional scenes (mostly exteriors) are soft, and there are some distracting imperfections in the source material, although these are brief. There are no compression artifacts and no edge enhancement.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono sound is adequate for a film of this vintage, without distortion or harshness. However, there is some hiss whenever the characters speak.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Video interview with actress Maria Pia Casilio
  2. 10-page printed insert with essay by critic Stuart Klawans and reprinted recollections on the film by De Sica
  3. Writings on the film by Umberto Eco, Luisa Alessandri, and Carlo Battisti
Extras Review: Film critic Stuart Klawans provides four pages of notes in the printed booklet, including his personal reaction to the film, historical notes on its reception upon release, and its placement in the context of the neo-realist movement. In a brief excerpt reprinted from his book Miracle in Milan, De Sica discusses the film's production history, and explains why it's his favorite.

The new (2003) video interview with Maria Pia Casilio is presented full-frame. In its 12m:05s, she reminisces about meeting De Sica and her amusing attempt to get out of making the film by demanding an absurdly high salary. She talks about the shooting process, her successful acting career after Umberto D., and her ongoing friendship with De Sica.

The 13 text screens of On Umberto D. present remarks by Carlo Battisti, De Sica's longtime assistant director Luisa Alessandri, and Italian author Umberto Eco. Battisti's and Alessandri's comments are brief, but Eco provides an interesting analysis of the reasons behind the film's failure at the box office.

The cream of the extras crop is definitely That's Life: Vittorio de Sica. This excellent 54m:31s documentary, made for Italian television in 2001, has no narration, but instead relies on interviews and location and on-set footage to examine De Sica's career, from its early days up until 1970's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. There's an amazing wealth of archival materials here, including interviews with Zavattini and Sophia Loren, footage taken at the premieres of several of De Sica's movies, and even a clip of De Sica singing! Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of Italian film will find this documentary fascinating.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Vittori De Sica's late neo-realist film Umberto D. is a simple tale of an elderly gentleman reduced to poverty. The transfer is mostly very good, and anyone interested in the history of Italian cinema will find the bonus documentary essential.


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