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At the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater to May 28
The height of naturalism when it was made in 1952, Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. was a provocation, a scandal, and a license to kill cinematic conventions. Reissued in a fresh print with retranslated subtitles, the film looks considerably less startling today. But then it was always less radical than scripter Cesare Zavattini originally intended. De Sica’s longtime collaborator, Zavattini had helped the director define Italian neorealism with Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief and next wanted to do something unprecedented: depict 90 minutes in an ordinary man’s life. Such experiments were ultimately postponed until the ’60s, and Umberto D. instead surveys several days in the life of a retired Roman bureaucrat. The title role was played by Carlo Battisti, who in real life was a philology professor, and his persona represents one obvious difference between this film and other neorealist postcards from the edge. Umberto is a bourgeois man struggling to survive on an inadequate pension, trying to retain a dignity that most De Sica/Zavattini protagonists never had. Having fallen behind on the rent, Umberto faces eviction from his room in the apartment of a woman who’s going upscale. His only friends are his impeccably trained little terrier, Flike, and chambermaid Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), who also expects to get the boot, when it becomes obvious that she’s pregnant. Umberto takes temporary refuge in a hospital, contemplates the dangers of a dog’s life when he visits the pound to retrieve the runaway Flike, fails in his attempts to cajole money from acquaintances and strangers alike, and ultimately decides to give his dog away so he can commit suicide. Two things suggest that Umberto D. will not end on the direst of notes, however: Flike’s vitality and an orchestral score that, though minor-key, now seems a little sweeter than Umberto’s desperate circumstances merit. —Mark Jenkins