16 November 2009

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia -or- My Journey Through Italian Cinema (Part Three: Umberto D.)


I can't answer this question, though later on I'll try: How can a movie feel so real and be about so sad a situation and yet be so moving, so fulfilling to watch?

I discovered a new film to add to my list of favorites and it's one that's been around longer than I have. It is Umberto D. (1952) from director Vittoria De Sica. It was depressing except it wasn't. No story so beautifully told could be depressing. No depiction of such a loving relationship, no portrait so vividly drawn could be depressing. You want depressing watch one of those Hollywood assembly line films where no one is real, everything is obvious and no truths are revealed. None of those three cinematic sins applies to Umberto D.

This is the story of a pensioner, probably in his seventies, whose meager income isn't enough to live on. He faces eviction from the room he rents for money owed and soon due. While his landlady is heartless, she is neither stereotypically evil or cruel. Just a force of nature consumed by her own needs and desires and ambitions and oblivious to those around her, save those from whom she can profit.

Umberto has no immediate family that we are aware of, just his beloved dog, Flike. He's as cute a little mutt as you'll ever see and talented one at that. Umberto and Flike love one another in the uncomplicated way of pets and humans. De Sica does not milk this for cheap sentimentality but merely presents it. Bravo.

Umberto has human acquaintances as well, many of whom are clearly fond of him. None more so than the landlady's maid, the lovely Maria. She's as sweet as candy, but is far from an innocent as evidenced by her pregnancy and the ambiguity surrounding paternity. Umberto and Maria are allies, each accepting the other as is. They are united, in large part because of their mutual disdain for the landlady. While Umberto faces immediate eviction, Maria knows its just a matter of time before she also gets the heave ho. That time being when her pregnancy becomes obvious.

Italians did not respond positively to Umberto D. In part they felt the whole neo realism bit had been done to death, but more to the point they didn't think the film reflected well on their country. Here was the story of a man who worked in civil service for 30 years and couldn't make ends meet. In fact, the movie opens with Umberto joining a rally of other pensioners appealing for enough money to enjoy their retirement in some comfort. Also there are characters, never mind the landlady, who are not model citizens. Like the man feigning illness to prolong his stay in the hospital or the couple who provided shelter for dogs, but were clearly in it to make a buck without compassion for the bowsers. Finally there are several characters much too busy going about their lives to have compassion for others who are less fortunate.

But none of these other characters draw our attention. We care only for Umberto and his dog and to a lesser degree, Maria. By extension we care about others who have or do or will face seemingly insurmountable odds in their efforts to simply make do. We follow Umberto's efforts. Including the gut wrenching choices he faces such as whether to part company with Flike or to shuffle off this mortal coil of his own accord.

I asked a question at the beginning of this post. How is such a story, bleak story, so wonderfully watchable? Possible answers:

It is honest. There is no manufactured ending or moments, no playing with our emotions.

It is kind to its characters, it let's them breathe, have space to move and most of all to think. We see Umberto thinking all the time. And you know what? We think right along with him.

It trusts us. We are allowed to inhabit the world too. We roam around with Umberto and Flike. We discover scenes and situations and people ourselves. Nothing is telegraphed to us. We are not made to feel any given way at any given time but may decide for ourselves.

It is is beautiful to watch. A stark story but lovingly photographed. Lush black and white.

Maybe those explanations account for what a great pleasure it is to watch this film. I should add that many of the actors including the lead, Carlo Battisti, had no prior acting experience. It was supposed to add to the realism and at this it was quite successful.

I see from IMDB there is a rumored remake in the works. It's hard to think of a worse idea for a filmmaker. Certain classics cannot be replicated never mind improved upon. A nice enough film may be made based on the original but it does a disservice to that original at is pretense and will be measured by lovers thusly. Do what the first film did and create an original. For that is what makes Umberto D. so wonderful: it is unlike anything else. Maybe that's why it's so moving and fulfilling to watch.


No comments: