Having seen the film I read a bit about it. The Criterion Collection provides a booklet with an excellent review by Stuart Klawans and a bit of an interview with director Vittorio De Sica. What I learned was the Umberto D. was a big flop at the box office in Italy primarily because the Italian government didn't like the film because they thought it was insulting since it made Italy seem so unfeeling, poverty-stricken, and mercantile. I was struck by this because, yes, poor Umberto and his dog are pretty much set out to pasture without so much as some grass and a bone. But to say that such a film reflects upon an entire people is perhaps to protest too much.
Italy was devastated by the failure of fascism and was just beginning to recover from the war when this film was made, and nobody wanted any downers. Vittorio De Sica's film is perhaps not so much of a downer as the early critics thought. The ending is ambiguous and while not hopeful for Umberto is somewhat inspiring in the youthfulness of his dog and in the sweet humanity of the maid Maria who shoulders her situation with alacrity while showing affection and kindness toward a bitter old man.
I was not moved to tears as some have been in watching this. Umberto's troubles seem to me (from my privileged vantage point in time and place) somewhat of his own doing. I imagined that he supported the fascists, and I saw his poverty in his old age as a direct result of that support. Barring that, I imagined that he had planned poorly for his old age, and at any rate his values, represented by his always wearing a suit and tie and hat and his inability to beg or to take some kind of job, disqualified him for tears. Of course I was unfair.
Even so my sympathy was with him, and I respected the decision he finally makes--although whether he will be able to carry it out is unclear. I respect his dignity, and identify with him in his struggle with the Teutonic and utterly bourgeois landlord who holds sway over him, played with a deliberately heavy presence by Lina Gennari, whom De Sica photographs up close and low to her large body to emphasize her strength and to make it clear to us that Umberto has no chance in his struggle with her.
Both Carlo Battisti who played Umberto and Maria Pia Casilio who played Maria, were considered amateur actors, very much in keeping with the neorealistic school of film; yet for me they were both excellent and natural, whereas Gennari, who was a professional, seemed artificial. But that impression is an artifact of the neorealist school (which they say died with this film). The very fact of no flourishes and no modeling and certainly no flights of creativity by the actors, it was believed, helped to make the film realistic, about real people in real situations.
Today of course this is a celebrated film, considered one of De Sica's best. He himself believed from the very beginning that it was one of his best even though he knew it would be hard-pressed to make any money for its producers.
A word about the dog (the other professional actor in the film). Flike is extraordinarily well-trained, so much so he becomes part of the psychology of the film and is at the very heart of the denouement. The scene near the end where Umberto dips under the rail guard as the train approaches, Flike held close to his chest--and the scene after--is of one of the great sequences in cinema, and, ironically, as in a commercial film, stars a dog! Umberto D. is in fact one of the greatest dog films ever made. All dog lovers will appreciate the love that Umberto feels for his dog and the love that is returned AND the gutty realism that the dog displays.
The DVD includes a documentary about De Sica that I didn't have a chance to view, excellent subtitles, and a video interview with Maria Pia Casilio.
I would almost say, see this for the dog, but do see this for Vittorio De Sica, one of cinema's greats, here at his best, and for Cesare Zavattini who wrote the compelling script.