Vittorio De Sica

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Vernon Young

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[Umberto D.] may easily be construed as an artless and unbuttered slice of life, a testimony of "naturalism": ostensibly a method of expressing reality without inhibition, without overtones and as far as possible without style. Nothing could be further from the case. Like Shoe Shine or Bicycle Thief, and with justification even more subtle, De Sica's Umberto D.—a masterpiece of compassion …—might be termed super-naturalism if this compound had not been preempted for another kind of experience entirely. The fidelity of De Sica's attention to the plight of the man, Umberto, realistic in its living details, is enriched by a host of modulations working under and through the story line, so delicately registered as to be imperceptible save to that second awareness evoked from most spectators without their being able to define it. Cinematically created, these modulations are not arresting, since they accumulate from thematic relationships in the scenario. De Sica's use of the camera is clear-eyed, rather than ingenuous. As in his other naturalist films, his cinematographer [G. R. Aldo] … is not called upon to exhibit striking angles or movement: De Sica's compositions rarely startle one by their ingenuity. What he focuses on at a given point is more significant than the way he focuses. The way is never neglected, it simply isn't exploited; for it is to De Sica's purpose to move with un-elliptical life as closely as he dares without vitiating motion-picture technique altogether. To subordinate the essentially cinematic as he does is itself a technique of ineffable skill; and to efface his signature as a director from the style of a film argues a modest purity of aim.

In Bicycle Thief, De Sica developed the film's rhythm by a pas de deux of man and boy in their scouting expedition through the city, the boy nervously anxious to keep in time with his father's mood and intention. The adjustments of temper and of tempo, the resolution, the haste, anger and embarrassment, the flanking movements, the frustrations and periodic losses of direction: these constituted a form of situational ballet which gave the film its lyricism. There is no such springy movement in Umberto D.; the quality of its form is established otherwise.

The possessive theme is Time; its epiphanies are sounded in a scale of variations. (pp. 592-93)

Sound, which is time, is always extraneous to Umberto D. It impinges; it does not involve him. The clatter of social life is beyond the fringes of his consciousness; he hears it but it isn't speaking to him. (p. 594)

Visually the narration is equally cogent, taking in without appearing to emphasize the incongruities, the excrescences, the implacabilities of life at a level of civilization where the meretricious and the ugly are accepted or suffered, where in fact the vitality of a people cut off, by a superimposed culture, from its native modes, expresses itself by choice through a corrupt aesthetic…. There are some remarkable instances in this film of De Sica's sparing use of a background object as direct symbol. The old man's coat hanging lifelessly on a gigantic stand which looks like a monstrous underwater growth is analogous to the social situation in which man is an unbraced, drowning remnant in the ruins of a cheaply florid dream of empire—and when Umberto D. returns to his room the last time, a shot of the hallway gives prominence to a stuffed falcon among the bric-a-brac. The most impressive vis-a-vis is depicted in the painful scene of Umberto D.'s tentative rehearsal of begging…. An overpowering classical column, cracked at the base,...

(This entire section contains 976 words.)

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is the backdrop for this joyless act.

De Sica's balance between the lifelike and the cinematic is tenuous; if he had actors less responsive to the naked untheatricality he is commonly after, his muted formalism might suffer from the risks he takes…. Few directors could manage, without losing their hold on the continuity, the beautiful cadence in this film where the coming of day is enacted through the actions of Maria as she gets out of bed. The scene is wordless, leisured and almost unbearably intimate. There is little in it that could not be performed on a stage, but in its brief duration and its breathing nearness, in the particular placing of the camera for each view of the pregnant girl struggling to experience joy which gives way to fear and then to a daydream indifference, it is a marvel of movie timing and perspective.

Maria, while subordinate to Umberto D., is by an inspired implication complementary. Neglected youth and discarded old age…. In Shoe Shine the horse was a symbol, if you like, of the unattainable, a dream of power and freedom. The bicycle in Bicycle Thief was an occupational necessity which became a projection of the man's self-respect. Flick [Umberto's dog], neither ideal nor economic necessity, may be felt as representing the last thing a man will surrender: it is the love in the man, Umberto.

When De Sica and Cesare Zavattini … avoided the easier termination, of suicide accomplished, by ending the film on an inconclusive (which is not to say indecisive) note—Umberto D and the dog gamboling under the cedars—we can be sure they were saying very clearly: Life sometimes leaves you nothing but love, and in your deprivation and anguish you cannot bear to support even such a burden. But this is your only identity and until the day you die you must not put aside the little humanity left to you…. Umberto D. tries to entrust the dog to another; he tries to give it away; he tries to destroy it. In the end he is still, as our idiom says, "stuck with it". (pp. 594-96)

Vernon Young, "'Umberto D.': Vittorio De Sica's 'Super'-Naturalism," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1956 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. VIII, No. 4, Winter, 1956, pp. 592-96.


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