Monday, November 10, 2008

Umberto D and me

Over the weekend I watched Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D again, which I had not seen for over fifteen years. What a masterpiece.

Roger Ebert maintains that Tokyo Story is superior to this film, both having similar subjects i.e. the ultimate bleakness of life as illustrated by the condition of the elderly. I hold ole Roger in esteem, but here I have to disagree.

The cinematic miracle of Umberto D is that it manages to be compelling and unforgettable despite the emotional containment of the non-professional protagonist (actually a former university professor-brilliant casting), who plays a retired civil servant who becomes homeless and plans his suicide.

Just one detail is enough to show the subtle genius of De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. In a justly famous scene, our stoic oldster tries and fails to beg in front of Rome's Pantheon, the massive columns of which are shown in the photo. In a subliminal moment, the director scathingly repudiates his country and its capital, along with its history of thousands of years, through the powerful symbolism of the building, at first Roman, then Christian. The power of the Roman Empire and the dictates of Christianity have not changed hard-hearted human nature.

Apparently this pissed off a young politician of the time (1952) by the name of Giulio Andreotti. I consider this a further recommendation.