Friday, March 20, 2015

Umberto D.

Umberto D is undoubtedly the saddest story ever filmed about a man and his little dog. It tells its story without the least trace of artifice whatsoever. Granted the story is sad: at times it evokes nothing but the most heartfelt tears from our eyes. But it is not the sort of emotion aroused by manufactured melodrama. We see Umberto, a retired Professor, as he grapples with poverty, an overbearing landlady, and indifferent colleagues, with no friend in the world except for, yes, his little dog. There’s a young maid who is always on his side as well, but, like the dog, she can do precious little to help him.

Umberto D was directed by Vittorio de Sica in 1952. By this time, Italy, in which this film is based, was emerging from the War. Filmmakers like de Sica wanted to portray life as it was: bittersweet and temptingly ironic. He made Shoeshine in 1946 and Bicycle Thieves in 1948. Both films won Honorary Oscars. Both appear in various best films of all time lists. And both portray their stories, and characters, as they should be portrayed: with a clinical, but nonetheless bitter, attitude.

This film is rightly considered his masterpiece – it was also his favourite. There is a special reason for it too. The formula – that of a man and his little dog – has been used over and over again, even to the point of overkill, by subsequent films. You can see traces of it in many modern “dog films” – from Shiloh to Marley and Me to Hachiko. To their credit, these are films that do justice to de Sica’s unsentimental vision. As a person who grew up watching Shiloh during almost every holiday season, I should know that.

But there is something in Umberto D that is different, unique. Perhaps this is owing to two key sequences from the movie. One is with the hero (played by a real-life Professor) frighteningly searching for Flike, his pup, in a dog pound, for fear that it has been “put to rest” after being rounded up. Flike isn’t dead, but the moment where the two reunite is a true tear-jerker. For Umberto, it’s as though the entire world has finally come back together again.

The second one is much sadder. Ground to his last, Umberto is forced to contemplate suicide. After hopelessly trying to lose it, he realizes that Flike will simply not leave him. So he decides to jump onto the train with it. I won’t reveal much – because to experience it fully you must see it for yourself – but if you don’t cry at what unfolds subsequently, then you’re no human being.

In any list of saddest animal films ever, Umberto D should reside at least in the top five. It has received more accolades than that, including a slot in Time Magazine’s 2005 list of the “All-Time 100 Movies”. As a compassionate person, however, I think its plot, which never ceases to move me, will be enough to convince you of this movie’s beauty. For that, however, you must watch it for yourself!