Sunday 22 July 2012

1,001 Films: "Umberto D." (1952)

Umberto D. finds one of the leading lights of Italian filmmaking - director Vittorio de Sica - returning to the streets to point up major shortcomings in How The System Works. This is the desperately sad and painful tale of the eponymous old man (Carlo Battisti, in one of the great screen performances), trying to eke out an existence in a bug-infested guest house on the tiny state pension he's paid each week. While fighting off a bout of tonsilitis, the man's beloved dog - his sole companion, save for a pregnant maid working for a very cruel mistress - goes missing, and so, as in de Sica's earlier Bicycle Thieves, the protagonist is sent off on an allegorical quest. The substitution of dog for bicycle in this most significant of plot strands aligns Umberto D. with later films - like Amores Perros, or even Best in Show - which suggest you can tell a lot about a society from the manner it cares for its canines. However much of a realist de Sica was, he retains a misty eye for the sight of a dog turning tricks, though the script makes it clear that the protagonist is only ever looking for a little reciprocation: all Umberto asks is that somebody care for him as he has his pooch.

He's not alone in the canon. You might see Umberto as a brother to the civil servant in Kurosawa's Ikiru, or the Army men lost amongst the scrapyards in The Best Years of Our Lives, both post-War films haunted by the spectres of death and obsolescence, whose characters went looking merely to end their days with some kind of dignity. This, of course, was the great social shift of the late 20th century: that the world's population was living longer, but with increasingly fewer resources at their disposal. de Sica's film is work of prescience and still vital relevance, then: I first saw it during the so-called "pensions crisis" of 2004, a period in which even your comparatively comfortable correspondent received disheartening letters from the Government warning of "potential shortfalls" in his future pension - letters all the more disturbing because their reader saw no immediate way of getting back up to speed with the payment schedule. Seems you spend the first half of your life getting into debt, the second half trying to break even - the question de Sica's film dares to ask is: surely there has to be more than this?

Umberto D. is available on DVD through Nouveaux Pictures.


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