By Chaz Lipp

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Umberto D. – The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. is one of the least cloying or sentimental films about the bond between man and canine ever filmed. Rather than using the antics of a cute dog to manipulate the audience’s emotions, Umberto D.‘s little terrier, named Flike, represents something much deeper and more soulful. In fact, in its dry tone, the movie reminds me of another dog-oriented masterpiece, Colin Gregg’s We Think the World of You (1988). I happen to be a sucker for dog movies in general, but they are especially effective when they attempt to portray the bond between human and animal in a meaningful, realistic manner.

Released in 1952, Umberto D. tells the story of a man (the title character) barely existing off a paltry pension in Italy. He has almost nothing—no money, no family, and no reliable residence. His landlord is constantly trying to have him evicted. The one thing Umberto (Carlo Battisti, in his first and last acting role) does have is his little dog, who is his constant companion. Most of the film’s 89-minute running time is devoted to showing Umberto’s attempts at gathering enough money to pay his rent. At one point he even checks into a hospital due to a relatively minor ailment (tonsillitis, for which the treatment is having his tonsils brushed with iodine—yikes!). He tries to prolong his stay, even though he’s not that sick, in order to save money.

Apparently Umberto’s relationship with his female landlord (Lina Gennari) has seen friendlier days. She used to call him “Grandpa” and he speaks of occasionally giving her meat (which sounds kind of perverse, but I don’t believe it was meant as a double entendre). He gets along with the fetching teenage maid, Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), who works in his building. Not only is Maria pregnant, she doesn’t know who the father is between two possibilities. Umberto tries to offer some fatherly advice to the young mother-to-be, but it doesn’t seem to go over too well.

But its Umberto’s relationship with Flike that really drives the movie, ultimately achieving a subtle poignancy as he regains the will to live, even after bottoming out in despair. For his part, little Flike is particularly adorable, especially when he holds Umberto’s hat for spare change since the old man is too embarrassed to panhandle. The most cynical viewers may consider these elements a tad too cute, even though Umberto D. clearly exists in a different universe than, say, the Beethoven series.

How could anyone not love Flike?

Criterion’s Blu-ray of Umberto D. offers a generally strong image. The transfer, framed in the film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, was made from the original black-and-white nitrate camera negative. Beautiful grain structure is prominent throughout most of the film. A few sequences are notably soft, originally leading me to believe multiple sources were used, but apparently this was not the case. Contrast varies a bit throughout, with a section late in the film appearing unusually washed out. Overall it’s a pleasingly well-defined image, even though it certainly shows its age.

The mono soundtrack, the booklet informs us, was remastered from a 35 mm optical soundtrack print. There’s very little to comment on, as the Italian dialogue sounds fine. Umberto D. isn’t really dialogue driven, nor is it very audio-oriented in general. Longish stretches of dialogue-free scenes don’t really contain many other audio elements. But for a 60-year-old film, the sound is quite acceptable.

Not packed with special features, Criterion’s Umberto D. does contain two very nice pieces. A made-for-TV Italian documentary, That’s Life: Vittorio De Sica runs about 55 minutes and covers the director’s career. Somewhat more specific to the film is a 12-minute interview with actress Maria-Pia Casilio. She passed away in April, 2012. This interview was recorded in 2003. As is most often the case with Criterion, the Blu-ray booklet is a viable feature in its own right. This one is 17 pages and contains three essays about the film.

Umberto D. is not a film for all tastes, to be sure. It takes a little patience to get into, but the gentle, simple tale of a man and his dog delivers a modest emotional payoff to those willing to try.

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Chaz Lipp

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