Thursday, September 15, 2016

Time Stops & 'Umberto D' Endures

9/11 Memorial in Manhattan
The fifteenth anniversary of the horrible events of September 11, 2001 this past Sunday have left me feeling somewhat introspective and a little bit melancholy this week.

To paraphrase a quote I heard during an interview with one of the attendees at the annual 9/11 memorial in downtown Manhattan reflecting on it having been fifteen years since the Twin Towers came down and the attacks in Pennsylvania and the Pentagon:

The calendar moves, but time stops.

And that's kind of what I felt like last Sunday upon turning on the radio when I got up to feed my cat Buster.

One of the first things I heard was an NPR report about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump attending the 9/11 memorial service and I just reached over and turned the radio off at that point.

There's something trite about examining the political implications of the two presidential front runners attending an event on that hallowed ground on a day that should be about something sacred to the families and friends of the thousands who lost their lives in that senseless, unfathomable horror.

After that I just couldn't listen to any news on Sunday.

As one of the millions of people living in Manhattan on that fateful fall day, the sights I saw, the eerie silence after the attack and the smells that filled the air will stick with me forever; things I'm still not fully ready to write about; though I imagine that would be therapeutic in some way.

When I'm ready I guess.

To seek some measure of solace from the memories of 9/11 last Sunday, I worked on my blog and then as I often do, I sat down to watch a movie.

Carlo Battisti as Umberto D
As I blogged about last month, after watching writer-director Delmer Daves 1947 Film Noir classic Dark Passage and doing some reading on the making of the film, it was illuminating to learn that he, like other American Film Noir directors in Hollywood, were heavily influenced by the Italian neorealism movement.

Neorealism emerged in the 1940's as Italian directors, cinematographers, producers, screenwriters, costume designers and lighting and sound technicians all used their talents to explore the impact of WWII on Italian society.

Their efforts changed modern cinema as we know it today by bringing elements of realism to the screen.

Director Vittorio de Sica is a former actor whose classic 1948 film Bicycle Thieves (titled The Bicycle Thief for American audiences) is regarded by many critics as one of the best films of all time; and one of the definitive neorealism films.

Four years later he decided to explore the same subject matter and re-teamed with frequent-collaborater screenwriter Cesare Zavattini for the 1952 film Umberto D.

A couple weeks ago I re-watched Bicycle Thieves for the first time in a few years and was reminded of the poignant, haunting beauty of the cinematography and the raw power of the emotional impact of the story as a desperate father frantically searches Rome for the man who stole his bicycle; which he must have for a new job in order to provide for his wife and son in post-WWII Italy.

While watching the commentary after the film, I was struck by De Sica's deep personal disappointment over the fact that his film Umberto D, released just two years after he won an honorary Oscar in 1950 for Bicycle Thieves, was poorly received by audiences.

So I immediately wanted to see the former for myself.

The title Umberto D is the name of the main character, shortened as it might appear on some kind of cold bureaucratic list. He's a kind, graceful old man struggling to survive his twilight years on a meager state pension with only his beloved dog Flike as anything resembling a family.

Umberto D protests in the opening scene
What struck me from the opening scene of the film is just how relevant it is to the realities of today.

Not just the complexities and challenges of facing old age, but also the idea of depending on a cold, unsympathetic government bureaucracy, and the economic injustices faced by retirees forced to live on inadequate pensions.

In a scene that's startlingly familiar to the social unrest of today's world, the film opens on a protest.

One that imbeds itself in your mind immediately as a large crowd of angry old men marching purposefully towards a local government building to demand more adequate pensions.

They're met by a disinterested bureaucrat who tells them there's nothing that can be done, and then quickly dispersed by disdainful police officers riding in jeeps who show nothing but contempt for the old men as they hustle them away from the square and break up the protest.

It's there that we meet Umberto D, played with understated brilliance by Carlo Basttisti, a real-life linguistics professor with no acting experience who was spotted walking down the street one day and persuaded to audition for the lead role by De Sica's assistants.

Just like Lamberto Maggiorani, the unforgettable lead of Bicycle Thieves who was not a professional actor, De Sica cast performers who fit the gritty reality he portrayed in his early films; and by casting Battisti as Umberto D he hit the mark.

Lina Gennari as Umberto D's scheming landlady
Though there's nothing overly complex about the plot, an old man trying to figure out how to survive, Battisti's look, expressions and mannerisms quickly elicit sympathy and pity as his struggles unfold on the screen.

He owes back rent to a greedy uncaring landlady (played by actress Lina Gennari) who rents out his modest room to couples who want to have sex when he's not there, and refuses to take what little cash he can come up with as a partial payment on what he owes her until his pension check comes.

Instead she constantly berates and humiliates Umberto D in front of others for his debt, and then schemes to use it as leverage to evict him from his home of 20 years. Why?

So she can remodel the the room and turn it into a spacious living room to entertain her frequent guests and suitors - De Sica uses her character to brilliantly depict the class divisions and income disparity between the haves and have-nots that began to appear after WWII as Italy slowly began to recover economically.

In much the same way that the main character in Bicycle Thieves spends much of the movie desperately searching for his stolen bicycle, Umberto D desperately wanders the streets trying to borrow the money he owes from the few associates he has; and even from two former co-workers he runs into - to no avail.

Flike tries to beg for money 
Through it all, the old man struggles to find the strength to maintain his dignity even while putting his love and concern for his beloved dog ahead of his own needs.

His devotion to his four-legged companion serves as a brilliant contrast to the parade of uncaring people who populate the film.

His little dog Flike is equally devoted to him.

In one memorable scene, after having repeatedly passed men begging on the streets during the film, as Umberto finally nears the end of his rope, he tries, but can't bear to reduce himself to hold out his hand on the street for money and instead, gives his hat to Flike and hides behind a nearby column hoping passing strangers will instead take pity on the dog and drop some money in the hat - as if Flike protects the old man's dignity.

There's no gore, or gratuitous violence in this film, but it's tough to watch at times as De Sica forces the audience to bear witness to the harsh realities of human suffering, the truth of the human condition in the 20th century, and the apathy of one's fellow man.

The gut-wrenching final act and ending is truly heart-breaking in ways that will bring a tear to the eye of even the toughest sort, and while I don't like to give spoilers, as his growing desperation spirals into thoughts of suicide, it's the love of Flike that gives Umberto a measure of hope.

The film seems so relevant to the world we live in today when the growing gap between the 1% and the 99% is as wide as it's ever been; and quality of life for the elderly is a problem that's only about to multiply as the Baby Boomers begin to retire - particularly when Republican politicians scheme to eliminate Social Security and gut Medicare.

Vittorio De Sica
But Umbero D is an enduring masterpiece of filmmaking, one that seems just as relevant and meaningful today as it was in back in 1952 in post-WWII Italy.

But even recognizing that, the fact that audiences and distributors turned a cold shoulder to the film when it was originally released genuinely puzzled me until I read an analysis of the film by Italian writer Umberto Eco - who joked that when he heard, as a younger man, that there was a film titled Umberto D , he, "Umberto E", had to see it.

Eco re-watched the film years after first seeing it and he noted that by the time Vittorio De Sica released Umberto D in 1952, many Italians were eager to move past the economic hardships that Europeans and others around the world endured during and after WWII.

There's no question that De Sica successfully explored familiar territory in Umberto D, and arguably made one of the finest films of his career.

In fact, according to an article on De Sica's ten best films as compiled by Indiewire.com last fall, it's been said it was Sweedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergmen's favorite film of all time; and that's saying something.

But many cinema fans in Italy felt that by 1952, the struggle, hardship and injustice that the great director so effectively portrayed on the screen in his early successful neorealism films like The Children Are Watching Us (1944), Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948), were (by the 50's) seen by some as negative portrayals of Italian culture.

Images many Italians were eager to put behind them by the 1950's as the economy and people's lives began to improve as peace settled over Europe.

Umberto D comforts Flike
But for De Sica himself, a true artist who was born into poverty in Sora, Lazio in 1901, my sense is that it was impossible for him to simply "stop" exploring the depravation and struggle of WWII and post-WWII.

Even though he so effectively used the backdrop of 1940's Italy as a canvass for some of his finest work, the unforgettable characters who populate his best neorealism films were likely based on the men, women and children he himself knew growing up in poverty in the early 1900's - and the experiences he knew first-hand.

So while perhaps Italian film audiences had "moved on" to a degree by the time Umberto D was released in 1952, De Sica had not, and his vision endures to this day; waiting for new generations to discover it.

As De Sica himself famously observed:

"I've lost all my money on these films. They are not commercial. But I'm glad to lose it this way. To have for a souvenir of my life pictures like Umberto D and The Bicycle Thief."

Those films are in truth, souvenirs for us all and timeless snapshots of the human condition.

1 comment:

Dick Laurey said...

In the film "Umberto D", the dog's name is Flike. What is the meaning of the name? In later years, it was used to mean a flying bike, or, motorbike, however, the film was made 20 years before that definition was used.