Classic Film Review: Umberto D. (1952)

After WWII, Italy’s social, political, and economic infrastructure was fundamentally devastated. The once vibrant country, after war-time bloodshed, had become a space characterized by impoverished working-class citizens who struggled to make ends meet. With this contextual understanding, Umberto D., a film focused on exploring the plaguing issues surrounding Italy, becomes jam-packed with engaging subtextual meaning.

The film, set in post-war Rome, follows Umberto Domenico Ferrari, an elderly man, who, despite his landlady’s wishes, is trying to retain his rented apartment.  Without any family, friends, or feasible job; Umberto and Flike, a companion pup, must maneuver through the unforgiving streets of Rome to discover new means of survival. Will Umberto and Flike, in a city devoid of visible compassion, find a way to maintain some senses of self-dignity, or will they let the pitiless Roman reality swallow them up into an impoverished oblivion? Only time will tell…

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Directed by Vittorio De Sica, Umberto D. is a captivating film that fully transports a viewer into a post-war Rome. Not only does De Sica immediately present Italian social/political insufficiencies, he manages to make them dominate thematics throughout the film.  Opening with a wage-demanding protest, one that is ultimately thwarted by military intervention, De Sica presents “the world” of post-war Rome through the rallying gaze of angry working-class men and, at the same time, showcases their relationship to the greater government entity. It is this very sense that, in many ways, seems to set up a thesis for the entirety of the film: Is it possible for someone with compassion to exist in a world that is utterly compassionless?

Juggling this thematic narrative, De Sica constantly paints Umberto as one of the last remaining citizens who consider the greater social climate. For example, Umberto promises to help a young maid find out which one of the Italian soldiers is the father of her soon-to-be child. Additionally, Umberto’s experience at the dog pound showcases that he is wielding a particular sense of awareness that seems to be unlike any of the other men and women around. After poking his head into a small room, Umberto asks a dog pound employee, “is this where you kill them?” Not only is does this scene stick with the audience, it suggests that Umberto, as opposed to everyone else, is taking a general interest in the fate of something other than himself (Something that is ruptured by the end of the film).

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At the end of the film (no spoiler’s necessary), De Sica presents Umberto with an easy choice that could make all the problems go away. The decision is devastating but is also full of humanities dark realities. The decision made causes Flike to distance himself from his Umberto. De Sica employs a series of long shots to suggest literal, emotional, and symbolic distance. There is a sense of heartbreak in this scene and it is only intensified by the swelling music.

Though the film ends with a sense of character uncertainty, it seems as though an interpretable path has been set out for Umberto and Flike. The film doesn’t offer any systematic solutions to the social happenings of 1952 Italy, but it does maneuver through the presented themes as if they were in an ideological conversation: compassion and faith vs. disillusionment and depression. And while, as stated before, the film ends with a clear pathway set, it appears that it is the audience’s job to pick whether or not Umberto and Flike are on the side of compassion or disillusionment.  Umberto D. concludes with something defined, but at the same time, forces the viewer to determine what has been defined (that makes sense in my head at least).

Overall Vittorio De Sica’s, Umberto D. is a great Italian neorealist film. The film has a plethora of memorable moments, characters, and ideas. The film can be viewed as a simple story concerning a man and his dog, but, at the same time, asks that the audience be present in the experience of Umberto, Flike and 1950’s Italy.

-Reddmond Perone

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The Relevance of Intellectual Montage: Post Eisenstein

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The Relevance of Intellectual Montage: Post Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein managed to take the unexploited potential within the film medium and through various theorizing, create specific montage techniques that truly showcased the power of movies. The techniques that Eisenstein created have influenced many filmmakers in their endeavor to produce significant concepts, emotions, and, above all else, art. The most prevalent, noticeable, and suggestive of Eisenstein’s methods, one that many Hollywood filmmakers have resorted to using, is that of the intellectual montage. Eisenstein’s intellectual montage has helped shape resonant meaning within Hollywood’s most beloved and highly rated films.

Before discussing how the intellectual montage has captivated Hollywood, it is first necessary to detail what a montage actually is. A montage, as described by author Aristides Gazetas, is “The creation of a sense or meaning not proper to the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition.” (120)  Gazetas quote explains a process of editing that allows viewers to feel some sort of interpretational sensation.  An intellectual montage, worked through similar association, takes the concept of juxtaposition and pushes it to create thought provoking metaphors for the viewers to react to. By linking one meaningful shot with another meaningful shot, a resulting third meaning is ultimately conceived metaphorically. The third metaphorical meaning acts as a device that allows the audience to arrive at new conclusions, conclusions that perhaps would not be considered without the intellectual montage.

As a director, Eisenstein utilized the intellectual montage to create metaphorical meanings within his own films like Strike and Battleship Potemkin. The images presented in Eisenstein’s films thoroughly show how commanding an intellectual montage can be. In Strike, Eisenstein shows the viewer an excessively aggressive military attacking/killing its own civilians.  The shot, on its own, presents an overwhelmingly intense image but it becomes clear that Eisenstein is not satisfied with the singular meaning.  To create his metaphorical meaning, Eisenstein cuts away from the violent mise-en-scene of civilian murder and immediately decides to show a cow being slaughtered, imagery which displays equal brutality, but assertively, generates an especially evocative thought. The metaphorical meaning Eisenstein created through the combination of the two shots shows something conceptual, a concept that connects the slaughter of humans to the slaughter of cattle.  Eisenstein, in Battleship Potemkin, directs a very similar type of intellectual montage, one that, again, showcases the potential strength of the intellectual montage.  

When looking at both, Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin, (1925) the captivating ability of the intellectual montage becomes exceedingly apparent. The captivation that an intellectual form of montage carries, forces audiences to interpret cinema in new and exhilarating ways. Eisenstein details, in his work entitled Film Form, “…Emotional principal is universally human.” (82).The assessment of intellectual montage by Eisenstein appears to show the relevant relation between emotion and montage. It is clear, through Eisenstein, that intellectual montage has the ability to generate emotion, something that congruently, encourages the development of meaning. Creating an effective intellectual montage allows viewers to have an emotional reaction, something that allows a films interpretable meaning(s) to resonate. It is this attractive valuation that still acts as motive for filmmakers to create their own intellectual montage post Eisenstein.

Directors attempt to construct avenues of meaning within their films through the same intellectual montage style that Eisenstein theorized and engaged with. Alfred Hitchcock’s films North By Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960), juxtaposes specific images in efforts to create the third meaning Eisenstein’s theory particularized. Nicholas Haeffner, in his book entitled, Alfred Hitchcock states, “…intellectual montage is used in Hitchcock’s films to plant an image in the mind of the audience which isn’t necessarily on screen” (37) Applying Haeffner’s analysis to North by Northwest, perfectly showcases the use of Eisenstein’s theory of intellectual montage. Hitchcock, at the end of the film, presents the viewer with a train cabin mise-en scene; where the male protagonist lifts the female protagonist onto the bunk bed. The following shot brings the viewer outside and shows the train entering into a tunnel.  By juxtaposing these two shots, Hitchcock is able to intellectually convey the idea of sex, rather than simply presenting or stating it. The symbolism of a train entering into the tunnel acts as metaphorical device, much like the image of Eisenstein’s cow slaughter worked through a similar set of associations. Hitchcock, in Psycho, again showcases his understanding of the intellectual montage during the famous “shower scene”. Haeffner, states: “Hitchcock took extreme care to avoid showing the knife touching the body… In a supremely effective display of Eisenstein’s principle of intellectual montage, the knife entering Marion’s flesh and the wounds, and the blood coming from them are in the imagination of the audience.” (38) While the images that Hitchcock initially presents imply a specific type of viciousness, the intellectual montage stems from capping off the violence with an evocative shot, one that shows a mixture of water and blood running down the shower drain.

The metaphorical meaning within intellectual montage can also be seen in films that were made in later decades as well. One of the most notable and influential directors, to utilize the intellectual montage, is Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola’s 1972 film, The Godfather applies Eisenstein’s theory of the intellectual montage but at the same time, elaborates on it. The montage comes at the films climax, specifically, “The Baptism Murders”. Michael Asimow & Shanonn Mader, authors of Law and Popular Culture: A Course Book, discuss “The Baptism Murders,” by stating, “The sequence is a powerful one, for Coppola is contrasting images of birth and death. The meaning that spectators glean from the contrast is that Michael Corleone is a hypocrite.” (167). To showcase the hypocrisy referenced by Asimow and Mader, Coppola starts the “The Baptism Murders,” with Michael observing the baptism of his son. Coppola quickly cuts away from the religious event and brings the viewer to various Mafia goons preparing to assassinate rival Dons/associates. Already, in the very early stages of the scene, the essence of an intellectual montage has been crafted and is considering curious ideas about religion and hypocrisy. Coppola enhances the montage by juxtaposing images of Michael agreeing to be baptized with the disturbing images of murder. The viewer knows that Michael is the one responsible for the deaths of the rival Dons/associates and partnering that concept with that of baptism works to create the much desired third meaning, a meaning that is layered with hypocrisy. Michael’s façade of a moral catholic is contrasted with him being a vindictive mafia man. This intellectual montage shapes a third meaning, that suggests the baptism is less about religiosity, and more of a metaphor that speaks to Michael fully accepting a life of crime and violence.

The inclusion of intellectual montages in cinema is a powerful tool that allows audiences to interpret and create new meanings. In relationship to Eisenstein, and the power of the intellectual montage, Thomas Elsaesser & Malte Hagener detail, in their book, Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses, “It was film’s efficiency in delivering vivid sense impressions…that rendered it so powerful as a medium.” (172). The quote by Elsaesser and Hagener, similarly align with the theory of Eisenstein. The films looked at, are elevated by the interpretable meaning that the intellectual montages work convey. The metaphors that audiences are able to recognize and translate in many ways, add an extra layer of sensation to films. Had Coppola not adopted Eisenstein’s theory of intellectual montage, “The Baptism Murders,” would not be a much-admired scene, but rather a selection of shots that ultimately feel flat and hollow. The intellectual montage acts as a tool of elevation, working to elevate perception, sensation, and meaning. With this elevation, compelling ideas can be considered, to the point, where the intellectual montage can have a lasting effect on the audience.

When filmmakers embark on the laborious journey to make a film, one of the most craved outcomes is that of meaning. Eisenstein’s theory of intellectual montage still remains relevant in connection to how meaning is achieved in cinema.  By utilizing this form of montage, filmmakers are able to shape metaphors that elevate movies. Two Hollywood filmmakers, Hitchcock and Coppola, directed some of the most well-known movies to ever be put to film and interestingly, they both managed to take Eisenstein’s theory and integrate it into their respective work. Having intellectual montages in film allows the natural meaning to be significantly elevated to a point where new meaning is derived. Utilizing Sergie Eisenstein’s specific theory of intellectual montage helps to create resonant metaphorical meanings in film.

-Reddmond Perone

Works Cited

Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form. New York & London: A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1977. Web.

Elsaesser, Thomas, Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses. London: Routledge, 2015. Web

Gazetas, Aristides. An Introduction to World Cinema 2d ed. Jefferson, North Carolina:                                                      McFarland & Company, Inc, 2008. Web.

Haeffner. Nicholas. Alfred Hitchcock. London: Routledge, 2004. Web