Italian director Vittorio De Sica is best known for his 1948 classic Ladri di biciclette (a.k.a. Bicycle Thieves or The Bicycle Thief). That drama’s deserved reputation as a neo-realist masterpiece derives from the elegant interplay of its many narrative levels and its deceptively simple presentation. In what is ostensibly the tale of a father and son hunting for a stolen bicycle in post-WWII Rome, De Sica delivers a morality play about the tenuous nature of ethics in desperate environments and a scathing critique of a humiliated generation of Italian men. It’s a rich film that works on both an immediate emotional level and, later, as a thoughtful examination of its themes. Four years later, De Sica re-teamed with Bicycle Thieves screenwriter Cesare Zavattini for Umberto D., a drama which sticks close to the narrative model of their earlier collaboration: a beleaguered Italian man, accompanied by a cute companion (this time: a dog), navigates the harsh economic realities of post-WWII Rome. But Umberto D. seems to be lacking the crucial additional layers that would elevate its simplistic sentiment, and sentiment alone fails to make it worthwhile.
Carlo Battisti stars as the title character, a retired civil servant whose pension is an insufficient living wage as post-war urban inflation takes its indifferent toll on the poor and elderly. Edged out by his self-interested and upwardly mobile landlady, Umberto flails about in pursuit of a new home for himself and his pet dog, Flike.
There are some nice moments in Umberto D., especially concerning Umberto’s friendship with a young maid (Maria-Pia Casilio) whose future is also uncertain — and it's an incredibly handsome effort, powered by G. R. Aldo's black-and-white photography — but otherwise, it’s hard to find much of interest for anyone who is not captivated by mild hardship narratives or the presence of cute canines.
While Umberto’s plight is unfortunate, he never seems bothered to do anything proactive about it. His innate defeatism may seem ripe for another critique of Italian society, to the effect that in the hierarchy of pride for Italian pensioners, panhandling and suicide are considered less humiliating alternatives to working — but if such a critique exists in Umberto D., it’s not apparent. In Bicycle Thieves, De Sica used the son's disappointment as a vehicle for a withering point-of-view; in Umberto D., Flike is a far less potent narrative tool. As Umberto wavers from maddeningly passive to maddeningly impulsive, there seems to be no perspective from De Sica on this essential lack of integrity beyond dog-level pleading for sympathy. I find it hard to care for a character with no will or purpose, and maybe that itself could be a critique of the feckless nature of chronic government dependency post-Fascism, but I suspect that I’m projecting a provocative context where only sentimentality exists.
Although I was initially pleased to have a new De Sica in store for me, and a short one at only 89 minutes, Umberto D. was facile and, as a result, dull.