“There are more characters than actors. So not every actor has the face for all characters,” proclaims Vittorio De Sica in Criterion’s definitive treatment of his neorealist classic. The statement appears in an Italian TV documentary on De Sica called “That’s Life.” Part defense and part apology for his use of non-actors in his films, most famously in “The Bicycle Thief,” this sequence helps illuminate “Umberto D.,” a touching, simple story of an old man and his dog trying to survive in postwar Rome. The doc is reason alone that this disc attains must-have status for anyone interested in De Sica’s work.
Told through interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and news clips, the fifty-five minute backgrounder proves remarkably insightful. It touches on the production of the director’s very uncharacteristic flight of fancy, “Miracle in Milan,” where the city’s populace takes to the skies on broomsticks through a stirring concoction of high wire crane shots and rear projection. Just as moving is the story behind 1944’s “The Gate of Heaven,” made for the Vatican in lieu of fulfilling orders to create propaganda films in Nazi Germany. De Sica shielded his collaborators from war by stretching production out for more than two years.
One of those collaborators, writer Cesare Zavattini, is treated with a level of affection and reverence so sincere as to make WGA members sick with envy. Fascinating asides include footage of an opening-night gala in Rome at the 1950s zenith of the Italian film industry, and mentions of abandoned projects featuring Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando.
“Umberto D.” remains affecting. The image quality of the feature is as good one expects from Criterion, whose striking high-definition digital transfer of a restored print will forever erase any memory of the film as the grainy, jumpy mess of revival houses past. As a result, the film feels more polished and masterful than it has in the past, suggesting the beginnings of De Sica’s eventual move from neorealism to the commercial success of Sofia Lauren vehicle “Two Women.”
Other features are for true fans only. They include a recent interview with “Umberto D.” costar Maria Pia Casilio and several writings on the film, including pieces by De Sica himself and a surprisingly accessible essay by the often impenetrable Umberto Eco. Even ardent buffs will agree that essays are not best viewed on television screens, especially when the rest of this package so capably makes the film itself look its best.