Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Thirty-Nine


#39 — Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)
As I’ve tried to admit–sheepishly but honestly–throughout the course of this long project, I have certain blind spots when evaluating the history of film. I stand by my opinions and feel they’re reasonable well-informed. Further, despite the assertion of uniform certainty potentially implied by the use of “Top” over, say, “Favorite” in the title above, these are intended to be highly personal lists. I don’t bring this up anew to cast aspersions of the progress of this chart, nor to reargue the purpose of this process. Instead, it’s helpful to illuminate the intensity of my reaction the first time I saw Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. The screening, blessedly, involved the big screen, and a restored print (very likely an anniversary restoration, given the timing). I was just chipping away at French New Wave at the time, and here came another mid-century, European cinematic movement to spin my mind. I’d seen precious little, if any, Italian neorealism by then (shamefully, I think my only exposure to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves can through its usage in Robert Altman’s The Player, a shortcoming that has since been rectified, as this series will demonstrate when we reach the nineteen-forties), and this introduction to it was like a twist ending that make me rethink everything that had come before. In an flickering instant, I had the ancestor to so much of the modern independent cinema that I cherished the most.

Umberto D. had the sort of story that I tend to describe with great affection and admiration as simplicity itself. The title character, played with great tenderness by Carlo Battisti, is struggling to make his way in society, bereft of necessary funds or support. Much of the film circles around his relation with his beloved dog, a canine he tries to find another home for–or, sadly, even another end for–after he’s lost his dwelling. In a deeply evocative way, De Sica zeroes on on the experiences of Umberto, tracking through his setbacks with meticulous and unhurried attention. De Sica essentially refutes the supposed need for a complex plot or rat-a-tat dialogue, revealing instead the pure power of honest, deeply struck emotions. Umberto’s sad tale is moving because of a sedate, assured commitment to the particulars of his life, and his world (De Sica suggests Umberto’s dilemma is a product of a society that discards people rather than some personal misfortune) rather than any overt manipulation.

I can’t necessarily draw a straight line from Umberto D. to favorite independent features of the eighties and nineties, but I can feel some of the same spirit, the resolute belief in quiet over frantic business. I don’t claim Umberto D. was the film that launched that thread of cinematic storytelling, the work that implicitly gave permission to filmmakers that followed to pursue a different course, one that looked like what they saw outside their window, or at least outside their window before their own success and prosperity kicked in. Umberto D. is a wonderful film, under any number of criteria. Part of my own fondness for it does stem, I have to concede, from the revelation I felt at my first experience viewing it, because firsts sometimes belong as much to the watchers as the films.

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