Maria-Pia Casilio and Carlo Battisti

Maria-Pia Casilio and Carlo Battisti in the restored Italian film "Umberto D." (1952), in limited re-release. (Rialto Pictures)

Movie magic here and now means special effects and the wonders only computers can create. But "Umberto D.," newly restored for its 50th anniversary, creates magic of a completely different sort. It makes the unlikeliest subject unforgettable, finding drama, beauty, even poetry in simple things and simple lives.

Directed by Vittorio De Sica from a screenplay he wrote with Cesare Zavattini, "Umberto D." is one of the acknowledged classics of Italian neo-realism. Nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay and winner of the New York Film Critics award for best foreign film, it stands alongside "The Bicycle Thief," "Open City" and many others as part of a post-World War II movement that emphasized authenticity and truth as core aesthetic values.

But even though half a century and countless trends have come and gone since "Umberto D.'s" debut, the spell of this very special film--De Sica's personal favorite and one he dedicated to his father--has not diminished. As reissued by Rialto Pictures, known for its superlative restorations of such films as "Contempt," "Band of Outsiders" and "Pepe Le Moko," this classic reappears in a print so vivid it's like seeing it for the first time.

According to Rialto, the Italian company Mediaset replaced defective frames, balanced lighting levels in the print and restored and filtered the soundtrack. This was done in collaboration with Giuseppe Rotunno, later to be one of Fellini's favorite cinematographers ("Amarcord," "Satyricon") but employed in 1952 as "Umberto D.'s" camera operator.

Though De Sica was himself an accomplished actor (he was even Oscar-nominated for 1957's "A Farewell to Arms"), as a director, especially in his neo-realist period, he enjoyed working with nonprofessionals. "The man in the street," he said, "in the hands of a director who is at the same time an actor, represents malleable material that you can mold according to your wishes."

"Umberto D.'s" star, 70-year-old Carlo Battisti, was just such a nonprofessional, of all things a celebrated professor of philology from the University of Florence whom De Sica discovered walking to a lecture on the streets of Rome.

Under De Sica's skillful direction, Battisti gives a compelling performance, creating a character--very real in his quirks, stubbornness and particularities--whose dignity and pride in the face of both encroaching age and life's pitiless vagaries are enthralling.

Umberto Domenico Ferrari is introduced taking part in a street protest where aged demonstrators brandish signs saying "Old People Have to Eat, Too" and clutch at their hearts when the police wade in and break things up.

He is, we gradually find out, a retired civil servant who worked for 30 years in the ministry of public works. In debt, without family or friends, at the mercy of a termagant of a landlady who turns his room into a hot-sheet motel when he's out, Umberto D. is in desperate need of money to prevent an imminent eviction.

Umberto D.'s main solace and companion in these difficulties is his Flike, one of the cinema's great canine performers, an energetic, terrier-like dog described by his owner as "a mongrel with intelligent eyes." Umberto sneaks the animal food at soup kitchens and worries about its health and well-being more than his own.

Umberto D.'s other connection to life is Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio, an apprentice seamstress at the time), his landlady's maid, whose life is not much more promising than his. She's pregnant, sure to be thrown out when that fact's discovered, and not sure which of the two soldiers she's been seeing is the father.

"Umberto D." spends its initial sections watching these two people go about their daily routines in that apartment. Part of the charm of this picture is the way nothing is rushed but everything has an emotional point. Things are happening though it seems like nothing is, and the film's natural and unobtrusive camerawork (G.R. Aldo is the cinematographer) is carefully setting us up for eventual crises without ever letting on that it is doing anything of the sort.

Gradually, the calamities that are threatening come to pass, and Umberto D. is faced with the loss of everything he values, including the irreplaceable Flike. Yet through the film's avoidance of special pleading and the unmatched simplicity of Battisti's performance, Umberto D. maintains an unshakable dignity through it all.

It was always the dream of screenwriter Zavattini, who also wrote "Shoeshine" and "The Bicycle Thief," to simply present 90 minutes of a man's life, and he came closest to that aim here. A government minister attacked the film when it came out for airing "dirty laundry" in public and demanded "more constructive" optimism from Italy's filmmakers. Yet, seen today, it's hard to think of a more remarkable tribute to the resilience of the human spirit than the one "Umberto D." puts on the screen.

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