Lost between the glare of The Bicycle Thief (1948) and his later films with Sophia Loren, Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 drama Umberto D. stands as an almost forgotten masterpiece of Italian neorealism and one of the last films that could claim to be of that movement alone.
Upon its release, Umberto D. was pilloried by a few cineastes who, unable to understand the chasm between true sentiment and false sentimentality, found it too maudlin, and by myopic critics – mostly left-wing dilettantes – who thought that the formerly middle-class civil servant’s tale was not “socially conscious” enough for the filmmaker to waste his talents on. Umberto D. flopped, but it has steadily risen in De Sica’s pantheon; it is now thought of as an equal to Bicycle Thieves, or at least right behind it.
The truth is that it is very easy to portray the struggles of the impoverished, as De Sica did in Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine (1946), when your story is laden with struggling children. But to elicit the grandeur of feeling for an old man, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti, a retired college professor from the University of Florence), takes a bit more. This is especially so since the lead character is not a particularly warm person. Though no Ebenezer Scrooge, Umberto is a proud and stubborn man who keeps himself emotionally withdrawn from life.
Umberto is also an everyman, in that he used to be a civil servant, retired with a meager pension. Even as the film opens, we are shown that he is nothing special; just one of dozens of old pensioners marching for a raise, and being derisively jeered by younger people and the police.
Having lived in the same small room for decades, he is harried by a bitch of a bleached-blond social-climbing poseur of a landlady (Lina Gennari), who loathes him for unspecified reasons. In fact, she debases him by renting out his room to horny couples while he’s away. A scene in which Umberto returns to his soiled bed after strangers have copulated in it is unforgettable – the look of disdain on Battisti’s face is utterly priceless.
The landlady also loathes Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), her pregnant, unmarried maid, who also happens to be Umberto’s lone human friend. His only other companion is his cute little dog, Flike. That is all we ever know of the man. We do not know if he is a lifelong bachelor or perhaps a widower, if he has children or grandchildren.
What we know about him is that he tries to pawn off his few items to meet his harridan landlady’s demands. We see the insect-infested building where he lives. Later, we see Umberto ill, though not as much as he claims, heading to the hospital where he can stay rent free. While there, he meets a jovial younger man who instructs him how to scam the nuns into letting him stay longer than necessary by asking for a rosary and faking piety.
Meanwhile, the landlady has literally ripped apart his room, violated his privacy, and allowed Flike to run away. As an animal lover myself, this sort of crisis is equal to losing a child – and to the old man, Flike is his child. He takes a cab to the dog pound, where he see dogs in cages being wheeled en masse into gas chambers; the panic that sets into Umberto’s gaze is palpable, reaching out to the viewer. Umberto eventually finds Flike, but the camera doesn’t linger on their reunion in sappy Hollywood fashion.
Things don’t get better afterwards. On returning home, Umberto realizes he will be forced out of his room. His concern for Flike’s welfare is the only thing that keeps him from committing suicide. Following more defeats, a desperate Umberto holds Flike and seems ready to step in front of an oncoming train. (I winced at the scene, a physical reaction I rarely experience while watching films.)
Umberto D. is long on real sentiment, but short on fake sentimentality, something Hollywood types can never discern. The film’s defenders, however, are also mostly wrong because they call it Chaplinesque. The thing about Charles Chaplin’s Tramp is that he is indefatigable, while Umberto is tired from the first moment we set eyes on him. He is totally beaten; only Flike keeps him alive. Just as old married people often die soon after their spouse’s death, so too do old people often die soon after a beloved pet dies.
If Flike had never been found, Umberto D. should have properly ended with Umberto’s death. But, since Flike seems a healthy dog in his prime, the film ends on the hopeful note that the two will have some years together. Perhaps something will turn up, even in a city shorn of food, shelter, kindness, and companionship.
Flike, Carlo Battisti in Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D.
Still, Vittorio De Sica’s film is most of all about human indifference to suffering: The sons of a dying man laugh at his bedside in the hospital; the pound workers blithely take the dogs to their deaths; Umberto’s old co-workers look askance at him – as if he’s diseased – when he tells them of his need; the nanny of a rich girl cares more about her beau than the girl; a woman beats a rug out her window as a poor man is dirtied by its dust below. Many other such moments abound in Umberto D.
On the other hand, there is the oft-commented upon scene where Maria goes through her morning routine, fixing breakfast in the kitchen, smoking out the ants, and grinding coffee beans, only to end as we see her holding back tears because the two boys she has been sleeping with refuse to claim paternity. She is alone in her despair even though Umberto offers some help, for she refuses him.
Another touching scene counterpoints Umberto’s lack of pragmatism, showing that he – like Maria – will only do so much to help himself. He tries to beg on a street corner, but physically cannot extend his hand to passersby; when one looks to give him money, he pretends he’s seeing if it’s raining and turns over and closes his palm. Then he has Flike hold out his hat, but is embarrassed by his scheme when he sees a former co-worker. Moments such as these prove that Umberto D. is no mere tearjerker, but an emotional powerhouse of a film.
That some people have also misread Umberto D. as an indictment of the old man for failing to prepare for the consequences of old age shows how out of touch with reality many critics, then and now, are. These are the same people who would deny Social Security to their grandparents who contributed to it for years, and claim the old are selfish for wanting their fair share. True, Umberto is behind on his rent, but he was living in a time of runaway inflation that would have eaten up his savings.
Also, Umberto may seem like a cold individual at times, but he is never disrespectful; certainly not in the blatant manner of his landlady. Thus, commentaries that jab at Umberto’s character or defend the landlady’s sadistic actions represent a misreading of the very “realism” of this neorealist film.
The truth is that the dilemma faced by Umberto, much like the one faced by the aging civil servant in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (another 1952 release), has not changed in more than half a century anywhere in the world. Therein lies the timelessness of Umberto’s tale, which will likely, albeit unfortunately, remain as relevant five hundred years from now.
Also of note, Aldo Graziati’s camera movements never intrude on the simple tale penned by novelist and longtime De Sica collaborator Cesare Zavattini, which has some minor things in common with the more recent American release My Dog Skip, another great Man and Dog film.
The Criterion Collection’s Umberto D. DVD is remarkably crisp; indeed, the white subtitles are never obscured. (Even so, an English-language soundtrack should have been included, as well as a film commentary by a film historian or scholar.) The disc also comes with the 55-minute Italian TV documentary This is Life: Vittorio De Sica; a 12-minute interview with Maria-Pia Casilio; and writings by Umberto Eco, Luisa Alessandri, and Umberto D. protagonist Carlo Battisti. De Sica’s memories of the film and a new essay by film critic Stuart Klawans are found in the insert.
Wrapping this up: Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. is a great film, and like its kissing cousin, Ikiru, it shows that films about old people can be every bit as engaging as those about the young and beautiful – and I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill crap like the Grumpy Old Men fare Hollywood spews. Those who criticize Umberto D. and its ending are likely the same sort who find Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard movies to be complex and profound.
Neorealism was a movement that should never have flagged. The world would be better off if a younger wave of filmmakers picked up the banner dropped over half a century ago, for it showed new ways of telling tales while displaying humanity in all things – even in the will of a small dog to live with his master, and what that very will generates in return.
© Dan Schneider
Umberto D. images: The Criterion Collection
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
UMBERTO D. (1952). Director: Vittorio De Sica. Cast: Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari. Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini.