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Isolation

March 8, 2010

by John Farr

Three films on loneliness and isolation.


Umberto D. (1952)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

An aging pensioner struggling to make ends meet in inflationary post-war Italy, Umberto D. (Carlo Battisti) is a despairing man who faces an uncertain future. Receiving threats of eviction from his cold, uncaring landlady and desperately seeking to raise the needed money to no avail, he can only rely on his one remaining friend, a small dog named Flike.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Portraying the plight of the elderly dispossessed in an acknowledged masterpiece of the neorealist style, De Sica’s “Umberto D.” may surpass his own “Bicycle Thief” for heartbreaking poignancy. What in less skillful hands could have been treacly melodrama becomes instead a wrenchingly honest tale about a forgotten human being searching in vain for some shred of human kindness. Half a century later, “Umberto D.” remains a monumental achievement of simple, eloquent storytelling.


The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Left on his own when a close friend is institutionalized, deaf-mute John Singer (Alan Arkin) moves to a small town in the Deep South, where he soon befriends a troubled adolescent girl, Mick (Locke), and a colorful cast of misfits, including an alcoholic ne’er-do-well (Stacy Keach) and an embittered black doctor (Percy Rodriguez). Spilling their secrets to the equable Singer, the townsfolk take for granted this saintly mute’s presence in their lives-until it’s too late.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Based on Carson McCullers’s bittersweet novel, and gorgeously lensed by famed cinematographer James Wong Howe, Miller’s “Hunter” is the affecting tale of a man who enriches the lives of everyone around him without (quite literally) asking for anything in return. The interactions between Oscar nominees Arkin and Locke (just 20 at the time) are particularly touching (they bond over classical music), but the film is also notable for fine early performances by Keach and Cicely Tyson, playing Rodriguez’s estranged daughter. Delicately grappling with poverty and all forms of intolerance, this “Hunter” has got a lot of heart.


Taxi Driver (1976)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Vietnam vet turned Manhattan cabbie, is an angry, forgotten man, and he’s about to break. His work takes him into the cesspool of the city, in contact with various lowlifes, including a pimp named Sport (Keitel), who protects child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), whom Travis befriends. He then takes one last stab at a better life, courting lovely campaign aide Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). But it’s soon clear he doesn’t belong in her world, and Bickle’s final disintegration is at hand.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Scorsese’s dark vision of human alienation in an urban wasteland captures the seaminess of pre-Giuliani Manhattan, and De Niro’s career-making performance as Bickle is haunting, recalling those real-life outcasts who have used violent crime to tell an oblivious world: “I was here!”. Stunningly directed and acted, this picture is every bit as disturbing now as when released.Brilliant, but not for the faint of heart.


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