- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

Taking movies seriously requires a willingness to acknowledge this contradiction: Money means everything and nothing. Few presentable films can be made or marketed without a level of professionalism that demands a hefty bundle of venture capital, even for modest projects. Yet the immediate financial return may reflect little about a movie's artistic merit or its enduring value as a part of the literature of the screen.

A fortuitous bit of timing brings an exemplary 50th-anniversary revival to the American Film Institute Theater for two weeks. Vittorio De Sica's masterful heartbreaker "Umberto D." once was credited with being such a flop in its Italian home market that it terminated an entire genre neo-realism.

Italian critics had coined the term, parroted by obliging counterparts around the world, to endorse such post-World War II classics as Roberto Rossellini's "Open City" and "Paisan" and Mr. De Sica's "Shoeshine" and "Bicycle Thieves." (The plural Italian title of the latter was changed to "The Bicycle Thief" when the movie was imported, but I prefer the original.)

Mr. De Sica became a star of light comedy during the 1930s, when he transposed his popularity from stage to screen and turned into the Italian equivalent of William Powell and Cary Grant.

As he took up film direction in 1940, Mr. De Sica drifted away from romantic comedy and toward domestic melodrama with an emphasis on contemporary social problems. The shift was clarified by his collaboration with Cesare Zavattini, a major novelist who had been recruited by the film industry. He contributed to one of Mr. De Sica's hits during the 1930s. Their first movie as a writing and directing partnership, "The Children Are Watching Us," in 1942, concerned a little boy who was victimized by the estrangement of his parents.

The release of "Shoeshine" in 1946 made their names synonomous with pathos against a backdrop of poverty and desolation. Two years later, "Bicycle Thieves" enhanced an already lofty prestige.

Mr. Zavattini, who died in 1989 at age 87, had formulated a master plan and aesthetics for his postwar film work. Each of the projects with Mr. De Sica, who died in 1974 at age 73, would illuminate a social problem. This would be juvenile delinquency in "Shoeshine," unemployment in "Bicycle Thieves," homelessness in the comic fantasy "Miracle in Milan" and destitution among the aging in "Umberto D."

At the same time, the movies would attempt a lyrical appreciation of the commonplace and the struggles of ordinary people, reinforced by a reliance on authentic urban locations and nonprofessional performers.

The emotional impact the films had on foreigners wasn't necessarily welcomed by Italian bureaucrats, who feared that persistent reflections of poverty and misfortune would have a discouraging effect on economic recovery and development.

Soon enough, the Italian public also demonstrated a fondness for romantic comedy, historical spectacle and Hollywood imports. The ardor and authenticity that informed the best neo-realist movies never were destined to dominate the movie business, though they illustrated some of the best things the medium was capable of when focused on everyday reality and urgency.

"Umberto D." dealt with an elderly protagonist, Umberto Domenico Ferrari, a proud but perilously mulish and isolated pensioner. He was portrayed by Carlo Battisti, who was a retired philologist from the University of Florence in real life and a camera subject of unsurpassed dignity and vulnerability.

Umberto enters on-screen among a group of former civil servants (he worked in the bureau of public works) protesting the meagerness of their government pensions. The demonstration, mounted without a permit, is quickly scattered by a few soldiers who cleverly maneuver their jeeps around a plaza.

We discover that Umberto has no cronies among his peers. People tend to turn a deaf ear or make quick exits when he threatens to elaborate on his money woes or attempts to sell them something. A retirement watch gets repeated rejections.

As the movie observes Umberto during the next week or so, which includes a brief stay in a hospital and concludes with a predawn departure from his ghastly but marginally reassuring furnished room, the audience realizes that his companionship has been reduced to a pair of fellow creatures. One is his beloved pet dog Flike, a mongrel. The other is an exquisitely touching, prematurely careworn peasant housemaid named Maria (Maria Pia Casilio), who is pregnant, courtesy of one of her two soldier consorts stationed at a post just across the road from the apartment house sheltering her and Umberto.

Grateful for Umberto's paternal interest, which has included attempts to remedy her illiteracy, Maria acts as a go-between for him with their mutual nemesis, a domineering landlady (Lina Gennari) who has plans and prospects for her flat that don't include an elderly, argumentative boarder.

The harsh social conditions in the De Sica-Zavattini films never overshadow crises of the spirit that culminate in emotional betrayals. In "The Children Are Watching Us," a mother fails her little boy. In "Shoeshine," two boys come to grief after losing faith in their friendship. In "Bicycle Thieves," a father's desperation drives him to a public disgrace witnessed by his son.

Umberto's crisis begins when he fears that Flike has been lost. A restrained but terrifying sequence at a city pound restores the pet to him while setting the stage for a more terrifying sequence of suicidal despair for Umberto. When the movie wrings you out emotionally, the essential figures are an old man and a sorely deceived mutt, who need to square things in the wake of an agonizing brush with despair and mortality.

Mr. De Sica's orchestration of this showdown, played out in a public setting but apprehended only by us, remains astonishing. A number of transitions depend on getting reactions from children and a dog that defy adequate simulation. Editing finesse is essential to one climax, but the aftermath depends on forms of pantomime and seemingly unrehearsed movement that could leave the whole movie in a maudlin heap. Mr. De Sica eludes every emotional and spatial trap he has laid for himself.

He concludes on a hopeful note that's pictorially stunning and conceptually mind-reeling. It harks back to the movies of Charlie Chaplin while also finding a way to overwhelm you with a sense of the present, of a generation rushing toward the future, whatever it may hold, as Umberto recedes toward the vanishing point. At this level of poetic eloquence, a movie's box-office performance ceases to be a matter of paramount importance. There are some masterpieces that trump the bottom line and loom larger than any particular genre.


TITLE: "Umberto D."

RATING: No MPAA rating (made years before the advent of the rating system adult subject matter, involving themes of poverty and despair; a sequence about the search for a lost pet that leads to a municipal pound)

CREDITS: Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Screenplay by Cesare Zavattini. Cinematography by G.R. Aldo. Music by Alessandro Cicognini. In Italian with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes


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