The tragedy in both these films emerges from the depths into which the heroes are tossed by circumstances. Umberto's descent in Umberto D. defines him from the outset of the film. He's a pensioner whose income has been cut; he can't afford to go on living in the apartment he's occupied since before the war, and his landlady, driven to selfishness and callousness by post-war economic terror, is eager to get him out so she can make more money on his rooms. Umberto is a proud old man of the old school; the matter-of-fact way in which the maid — his only friend besides his dog, Flag — announces that she's pregnant and doesn't know who the father is shocks him. In the most moving scene, he's reduced to begging on the street, but he finds he can't do it. When a passer-by reaches into his pocket, Umberto flips his upturned palm and pretends to be merely testing for rain. Then he puts his cap in Flag's mouth, coaxes the animal onto his hind legs, and slips behind a column.
The series includes three other films from the early mid '50s: the satirical fantasy De Sica made the year before Umberto D., the delicately daffy, one-of-a-kind MIRACLE IN MILAN (June 11 at 7 pm; June 13 at 9 pm), in which only the supernatural can solve the problems of the poor and homeless; STAZIONE TERMINI (June 11 at 9 pm); and THE GOLD OF NAPLES (June 5 at 9 pm), the earliest of his Sophia Loren comedies and a rare opportunity to see De Sica on screen. The 1954 Stazione Termini is a buried treasure. De Sica made it in English with Jennifer Jones as an American housewife and Montgomery Clift as the younger Italian man she meets and falls in love with on a trip to visit her sister's family in Rome — and Jones's husband, David O. Selznick, produced it. But when American audiences disliked it in previews, Selznick cut 20 minutes and released it as Indiscretion of an American Wife, and despite Clift's sensational performance, it opened and closed without attracting any notice. Only in the last half-dozen years or so has Stazione Termini been available in this country, and seeing the beautifully understated film De Sica actually directed makes you want to rail against Selznick. Yet it's Jones who should have done the railing — Clift isn't greatly affected by the cuts, but her affecting, layered portrayal, easily the best work she ever did, is hacked into semi-coherence.
It was just around this time that De Sica began to move away from Neo-Realism — his final film in that style, the 1955 The Roof, is reported to have been a disaster — and become once again an entertainer. In the HFA series, that shift is represented by The Gold of Naples (the only film I wasn't able to see) and 1966's AFTER THE FOX (June 12 at 9 pm), with Peter Sellers as a celebrated thief who pretends to be a movie director so he can move stolen gold without being caught. The picture lost a lot of money, and the thought of De Sica directing a Neil Simon script may not sound appealing. But off and on it's a very funny comedy, and Sellers's rendition of a Fellini-esque filmmaker is hilarious. In one scene, he has his leading man, a vain Hollywood has-been who's fighting his age (wonderfully played by Victor Mature), and his "discovery," his movie-mad kid sister (Britt Ekland), jog around a seaside town to symbolize the futility of our running away from ourselves.