One of the few really perfect films is Vittorio De Sica's 1952 Italian neo-realist classic, "Umberto D." Directed and co-written by De Sica, with his prime collaborator, screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, it's also one of the great humanist cinema works: a portrayal of age, poverty and simple lives in postwar Rome that is both luminous and heartbreaking. This story of a lonely old pensioner named Umberto Domenico Ferrari (played by Carlo Battisti), whose only companion is a lively little dog named Flike and whose only friend is the kitchen maid in the apartment house from which he will soon be evicted, has a universality that marks it as the greatest achievement of neo-realism, the postwar film movement in which De Sica and others sought to give drama and dignity to ordinary humanity.
No film does this more movingly than "Umberto D." Now brilliantly restored for the film's 50th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of De Sica's birth, "Umberto" exalts the everyday moments most films ignore. The lovely young maid, Maria (Maria Pia Casilio), wakes in the morning and goes silently about her tasks: lighting the stove, preparing breakfast. Umberto, in a soup kitchen for the poor, sneaks a plate of food to his little dog and is scolded by an employee as he leaves. Trying to raise money for his back rent, he keeps offering for sale his few possessions: his watch-and-chain, his books and, finally, all his clothes and his suitcase.
The film pulses with tension, because we know how desperate Umberto's situation is. His vain, social-climbing landlady (Lina Gennari) intends to evict him so she can turn his room into a reception area; his meager pension can't keep up with back rent and debts. In the film's first scene - a demonstration by elderly pensioners broken up by the police - we see the futility of even mild social action in this world.
In their other neo-realist classics, "Shoeshine" and "The Bicycle Thief," De Sica and Zavattini similarly told tragic or poignant tales of poverty and social injustice against backdrops of postwar collapse: the black market and unemployment. But Umberto is the most unforgettable of his lower-class protagonists. He is a man alone, except for gentle Maria and Flike, his little brown and white mongrel. Umberto's attachment to Flike, the only living thing that will remain with him, fuels the power of this film's last sequence, one of the most heartrendingly beautiful in all of the cinema.
De Sica's genius lay primarily in that gift of life, of vivifying his backgrounds and enlivening his actors. Here, they were a mix of professionals and amateurs: Battisti a university professor, Casilio a provincial seamstress, Gennari and Memmo Carotenuto (the talkative patient in the hospital where Umberto briefly stays) long-time movie pros. All become living, breathing human beings under the guidance of De Sica - scion of a middle-class Naples family and an Italian movie matinee idol from the '20s on.
Of his entire career, "Umberto D" was the film he treasured most; he dedicated it to his father, whose name was also Umberto. Despite the film's initial commercial failure and savage initial attacks by Italian government officials, it has become one of the most loved and admired of all cinema classics. It deserves that love: Then as now, "Umberto D." is a film that lets life flood into our souls.
Directed by Vittorio De Sica; written by Cesare Zavattini, De Sica; photographed by G.R. Aldo; camera operator Giuseppe Rotunno; edited by Eraldo Da Roma; art director Virgilio Marchi; music by Alessandro Cicognini; produced by Giuseppe Amato, Angelo Rizzoli, De Sica. A Rialto release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Italian, subtitled. Running time: 1:31. No MPAA rating.
Umberto Domenico Ferrari - Carlo Battisti
Maria the Maid - Maria Pia Casilio
The Landlady - Lina Gennari
The Landlady's Fiance - Alberto Albani Barbieri
Talkative Hospital Patient - Memmo Carotenuto Flike, Umberto's Dog - Napoleone
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times