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Umberto D is often considered Vittorio De Sica's masterpiece, the purest example of Cesare Zavattini's aesthetic, and most highly developed expression of this historic collaboration of director and screenwriter. It may also be the most relentlessly bleak of the great works of neo-realism.
De Sica was aware from the start that Umberto D might be susceptible to the same charge of subversion that had greeted Miracle in Milan. On the other hand, he had hoped, as he pointed out in a later comment, that ''the story of that old retired office worker, his tragic solitude, his boundless sadness and his pathetic, awkward attempts at warming his heart (would have) a kind of universality that would be understood by everyone.'' This was not to be the case. De Sica was accused by many, including the then junior minister Giulio Andreotti, of washing Italy's dirty laundry in public, of irresponsibility in projecting a negative view of the country. Against Umberto D were mobilized forces strongly opposed to exporting images of an Italy depressed and without justice; following Umberto D, the foreign distribution of films that were declared unflattering to Italian society was banned. The authorities feared, and with good reason, what the critic Georges Sadoul and a few others most admired. At the time of its first showing, Sadoul noted that Umberto D (along with Sciuscia, Bicycle Thief, and Miracle in Milan) constituted an extraordinary ''act of accusation'' against contemporary Italy. Official hostility was followed by critical indifference, and to complete the disastrous reception, Umberto D failed miserably at the box office. The story of old age, loneliness, and spiritual and material poverty was not likely to appeal to audiences who, in 1952, were eager to forget the past and to embrace the economic miracle that they thought—correctly as it turned out—was just around the corner.
Critical debate since the release of the film has focused on what is generally understood to be its central aesthetic question, the question of duration. Jean Collet was among the first to underscore that through the restitution to film of real time, De Sica had succeeded in giving the most banal of situations remarkable depth. But it is André Bazin's essay, ''De Sica: Metteur en Scène,'' that most completely delimits and defines the issue. Bazin is specifically interested in those privileged moments in Umberto D that afford a glimpse of what ''a truly realist cinema of the time could be, a cinema of 'duration.''' Two scenes particularly—Umberto going to bed and the awakening of the servant girl—exemplify those perfect instances in which duration determined by character creates a mise-en-scène that replaces drama with gesture, narrative with act. For Bazin, in these sequences ''it is a matter of making 'life time'—the continuing to be a person to whom nothing in particular happens—(that) takes on the quality of spectacle.'' Zavattini's lengthy descriptions of the most minute though absolutely necessary movements and expressions, scrupulously performed under De Sica's direction and photographed in revealing long takes by G.R. Aldo, exhibit, for Bazin, ''complete fidelity to the aesthetic of neo-realism.'' A conflicting position is taken some years later by Jean Mitry whose objection is not to the concept of duration, but to what is, in his view, a duration without significance. Duration in Umberto D, according to Mitry, ''is nothing more than banality and is charged very simply with prolonging, beyond the tolerable, events whose sense is clear from the very first images.''
These events are as follows: Umberto D., a retired civil servant is among the aging demonstrators at a rally in support of increased pensions. (Umberto is played by a Carlo Battisti, a university professor De Sica pressed into service after a chance meeting on the streets of Rome.) Impoverished but genteel, about to be dispossessed, completely alone except for the company of his dog, Flike, and the occasional companionship of a young servant girl, Umberto determines to take his own life. His only concern is for Flike, for whom he attempts to find a home before doing away with himself. Failing in the first attempt, Umberto determines to kill himself and Flike, and failing again, has no recourse but to take up once more an entirely hopeless existence. Were it not for his indifference to hostility, Umberto's confrontation with cold, often hostile persons and institutions would earn him the sympathy of the viewers, and the viewers the pleasure of the well-earned sentimental response. But De Sica, Zavattini, and Aldo take the necessary measures of script, direction, and camera that distance the viewer and deny easy sympathy. The cruelty of society's neglect of Umberto (which so offended the authorities), and lack of compassion of peers and institutions (which no doubt offended the charitable), and Umberto's grievous self-centeredness finally elicit, through the manipulations of style, the detachment of the viewer (and his or her attendant dissatisfaction) from Umberto's despair. The rigor of Umberto D explains both its initial failure and its subsequent reputation. Bazin's prediction was borne out; Umberto D would prove ''a masterpiece to which film history is certainly going to grant a place of honor .''
—Mirella Jona Affron
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