Italian neorealism was an important development in cinema during the late ’40s, immediately after the end of WW2. It was a movement led by directors who grew up and came of age during fascist Italy under Mussolini. The main filmmakers involved were Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti. They rejected making films in studios and instead shot their films on location, used non-professional actors, and infused it with their political sympathies, which were mostly sort some of Communism. Pasolini eventually rejected Communism in favour of a radical form of left-libertarianism.
Most of these filmmakers would eventually develop their own style, like the surrealism of Fellini or the classicalism of Visconti. However, Vittorio De Sica, probably more so than the others, stuck to his roots throughout his entire career. He made films in the neo-realist style well into the early ’60s, whilst most of the others had moved on. His reputation is built mostly on three films that he made in a row between 1948 and 1952: Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan and Umberto D.
Bicycle Thieves may be the best known, but Umberto D. rivals it for greatness and emotional power. Carlo Battisti stars in his film role as the title character, who is a retired former government worker. His landlady says he must pay his rent or he will be evicted, but in reality, he doesn’t have the means to pay it and she won’t keep her word. He ends up getting gravely ill and has to spend some time in the hospital. His one companion is his sweet dog Flike, and he is desperate to try to survive on his small pension and care for his beloved pet. Flike is quite possibly the finest on-screen canine, and has more emotion in it’s performance than the much-loved dog in The Artist.
The film is just a masterclass in simplicity: like Bicycle Thieves, the film has the barest of plots but through the characterisation and the very universal themes of survival, old age and loneliness, it becomes a work of art. It has a sense of despair from the very beginning, and if you’ve seen any Italian Neo-Realist films you know they don’t tend to end well: just see Germany Year Zero. However, De Sica is able to perfectly balance bleakness with almost Spielbergian life-affirming elements without it ever seeming forced, and the twist at the end is completely earned.
Umberto D. and Bicycle Thieves just go to show that the Italians did the realist thing better than anybody: if you compare them to any of the “kitchen sink realism” films from Britain in the ’60s, there is no competition. Those are so specific to their respective settings that they lack the universality that the Italian films have. Ken Loach couldn’t make a film as good as one of De Sica’s classics if he tried—and boy, has he tried.
The Blu-Ray from Criterion has a few extras but the film really speaks for itself. The disc’s extras are headlined by a 2001 documentary That’s Life: Vittorio De Sica, made for Italian television. The other two extras on the disc are a 2003 interview with actress Maria Pia Casilio and the film’s trailer. The booklet includes a essay by Stuart Klawans and a reprinted recollection by De Sica.