Vittorio De Sica may be known to more Americans as an actor than as a director, but from 1947 through 1972 his directing efforts received more acclaim in the U.S. than any other Italian filmmaker save Fellini. “Shoeshine” and “Bicycle Thief” were the first and third winners of the Special Oscar for a foreign film, a loose category that preceded the establishment of the regular foreign film category for a decade.
His 1952 “Umberto D.” is, like those two Oscar winners, an example of Italian neorealism, a gritty, low-budget genre that dominated serious Italian cinema in the postwar period. Amazingly enough, the social issues that define the characters' environment sound very much like — though more severe than — what's on today's news. It opens with a march of public employee pensioners protesting their treatment by the government. Umberto is among them, a lonely old man, broke, about to be evicted, and comforted only by his faithful dog Flike. Much of the film is a systematic downer, but at the very end we are somehow lifted out of that.
The three main actors — Carlo Battisti (as Umberto), Maria Pia Casilio (as the landlady's maid), and Napoleone (as Flike) — were all amateurs and all remarkable. (Seriously, if you're a dog person, you'll blubber as much as I did.) The extras on the disc include 12 minutes of interview clips with Casilio (shot in 2003), a trailer and “That's Life!,” an energetic hourlong documentary about De Sica, made in 2001 for Italian television. The black-and-white cinematography is crisp with a nice range of grays.
Umberto D. (Criterion, Blu-ray, $39.95)
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).