Thursday, November 03, 2005

100 Films: Umberto D.

If you ever find youself in Paris, try to drop by the Musee d'Orsay. It is a great art museum, and it has a number of things going for it over the more famous Louvre:
1) The d'Orsay is smaller, so there is not so much walking involved.
2) At the d'Orsay you don't have to pretend you are interested in Italian Renaissance paintings. [1]
3) Unlike certain Lourvrian Venuses, the sculptures tend to have all their arms in tact.

The Musee d'Orsay contains art and art objects from the late 19th and early 20th century, and there are a good many masterpieces to be seen. But it is easy to forget that many, if not most, of the masterpieces were controversial at best in their own time [2]. It is easy to label a painting as impressionist or post-impressionist or what have you, and happily roller-state on to something else, forgetting that these artworks were at one time shocking and revolutionary (you won't see many scandalized bourgeois fleeing the Musee d'Orsay these days). One wonders what is a worse fate for a Monet painting: being rejected by the Parisian establishment, or a century later having its print decorate the wall of a Dentist's wanting room?

The point of all this talk of French painting [3] is to note that in viewing art it is important to understand the artwork both in its relation to youself, but also in its relation to all viewers who have ever observed it and especially to its original audience.

And Umberto D. [4] is a work of art, a masterpiece actually, a masterpiece about a poor elderly man and his dog. As most reviews will tell you, it is a masterpiece of Italian neorealism: the actors were not professionals, the filming was done on location, the subject was impoverished post-war Italy. But at the time of its original release, it was not an old foreign art film to be filed away as "Neo-Realist" in an unread cinema textbook, and like the great artworks of late 19th century France, the film was controversial. Unlike those paintings, however, no one can accuse Umberto D. of being "pretty". [5] The theme is poverty. Many of the characters are cruel and indifferent. There isn't a particularly happy ending. And unlike pastel paintings of lilies and sunsets, it is easy to see how this film could be controversial: Italian society does not come off very well.

But so much for the 20th century Italians. One could see this film without knowing anything about Italy or neo-Realism or post war economics or the Louvre, and still be caught up in it and still think it a work of art. Unlike many characters from films, Umberto is a real person. While it is not wrong to use stereotypical characters in film, it is certainly limited. In the end Umberto Domenico Ferrari loses almost everything, but he is more heroic than most action movie protagonists: he is a hero because he is a person, not a category. The movie is not about the plight of the poor or the elderly or the pitiable "other" or the ethical treatment of pets. The movie is about Umberto D.

Today, when the our most popular documentaries are self-righteous polemics like Fahrenheit 911 or escapist animal narratives like March of the Penguins and "reality" programming has degenerated the craft of television to a state of increasingly ridiculous and tasteless one-upmanship, the lesson of De Sica's Umberto D. is sorely needed: reality is a good thing in film only to the extent that its subject is humanity. If an artwork, no matter how real, ceases to be humane, it ceases to be worthwhile.


[1] Admit it: once you've seen one, you've seen them all.

[2] Manet's The Luncheon on the Grass, which was rejected by the Paris Salon, is a starting example, but the history of impressionism is punctuated by a good bit of rejection.

[3] In interest of full disclosure: I really don't know what I'm talking about. Please don't hold the fact that I'm full of crap against me.

[4] See IMDB info or Lucas's Article.

[5] It runs the risk of being sentimental, of course, but that is to be expected when the story is about an elderly man and his dog.


At 1:45 PM, Blogger johanna said...

sentimentality can be a wonderful thing. i think it's an american sentiment to be anti-sentimental, anyway.


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