Umberto D. opens with a scene that might have come directly from a modern newscast. Down a street in Rome a large group of people march toward the camera, waving placards and chanting slogans. As they approach, we see that these are not ordinary street protesters but dignified elderly men dressed in overcoats, hats, suits and ties. They are retirees who, seeing their fixed incomes eaten up by inflation, are shouting "Justice for pensioners" and pressing for a raise in their pensions. Near the front of the demonstration is an elderly man accompanied by a small dog. The man is Umberto Domenico Ferrari, a retired civil servant, and the dog is his Jack Russell-like mongrel, Flike. When the police arrive and break up the demonstration, Umberto and Flike scurry away. "I'm just a good-for-nothing old man," he says to another pensioner, explaining that he is in debt, has no relatives to help him, is plagued by a persistent cough and fever, and is about to be evicted from his room because he is a month behind in his rent.
The film is Umberto's story, and he is in every scene, everything shown from his point of view. The plot of the movie is quite simple, a series of small everyday events that little by little give us a complete picture of Umberto's life in all its abject humiliation and hopelessness. Umberto responds to his dire circumstances with a series of increasingly desperate actions. He sells his possessions, beginning with his gold watch and his books. He tries begging in the street but cannot bring himself to carry through with it. Instead he has Flike sit up and beg with a hat in his mouth while he hides behind a nearby building. When an old acquaintance recognizes the dog, Umberto runs up and tells him that Flike is only playing. He even contrives to have himself admitted to the hospital so that he can save the money he would ordinarily spend on food to apply toward his back rent.
After Umberto is released from the hospital, his situation begins to go seriously downhill. He returns home to find that his landlady is redecorating the apartment in an absurdly frou-frou style, the wallpaper half stripped from the walls of his room, a huge hole knocked in the wall between his room and the next one. Umberto's world seems to be literally crumbling around him. Worst of all, Flike is missing. Rushing to the animal shelter to look for his dog, he is horrified by the casual indifference to the fate of the animals there and barely manages to rescue Flike before he is euthanized. Returning to his room late that night, he finds himself standing at his window looking into the deserted street below, and we can tell from the numb expression on his face and a quick zoom to the pavement below that he is about to jump. It is only when he turns around and sees Flike sitting on the bed waiting for him that he abandons his suicidal thoughts, at least for the moment.
In Umberto D. de Sica, like Chaplin in his films, presents the world as a place populated by victimizers and the victimized. When people are not outright malicious like Umberto's callous, social-climbing landlady, they are indifferent to the suffering of others. Just about the only other person in the film who elicits a sympathetic reaction is Maria, the meek, kind-hearted teenage maid in the apartment where Umberto lives. When Umberto packs his belongings and sneaks out in the middle of the night, he unexpectedly encounters Maria on the staircase and says goodbye to her. The dejected expression on his face makes it clear that he has given up all hope and decided to kill himself and that Maria—like himself another of life's sad victims and the only person in the film to show him any affection—is the one person he will be genuinely sorry to leave behind.
Much of the second half of the film is occupied with Umberto's futile attempts to make some sort of provision for Flike's future. No matter what he tries, though, nothing seems to work out. Apparently convinced that he and his dog are destined to stay together until the end, he finally takes Flike in his arms and walks around the barrier at a train crossing and toward an oncoming train. When the terrified dog leaps from his arms and runs away, cringing behind a tree, this rejection is too much for Umberto and he pursues Flike, wheedling him until he comes back. De Sica might portray Umberto's world as an inhumane place, but in the end he declines to treat his viewers with such cruelty. If we can't be certain what the future holds for Umberto and Flike, we now know that for them there will at least be some kind of future. In a final scene reminiscent of the one in Chaplin's Modern Times, we last see the old man and his dog walking away from us down a path in the park, playing fetch with a pine cone.
This ambiguous ending might seem a timid one, the result of a reluctance by de Sica to follow through on the grim situation he has set up so relentlessly, but I think closer examination tells us it is not entirely arbitrary. If Umberto's pride has been the thing that has kept him going this long, the inflexibility and selfishness it has engendered have also been his greatest flaws. Perhaps his concern for Flike manages to chip away enough of that stubborn pride to make him more adaptable and less self-involved. After all, his resources may be limited, but he does have resources. And it's a psychological truism that nothing can take us out of ourselves and help us transcend self-pity like loving someone else more than we love ourselves. Maybe in the end, rather than Umberto saving Flike, the truth is the reverse, and it is Flike who saves Umberto.
There is no doubt that of all the neorealist filmmakers, de Sica had the strongest streak of sentimentality, and my description of Umberto D. might make it sound quite the tearjerker. But de Sica didn't see the film that way, maintaining that rather than being sentimental, it was a realistic film made "without compromise." I think he was being absolutely honest when he said this, because even though the subject of the picture might break your heart, de Sica does present it in a totally realistic, unmanipulative way. This is a technically simple film with no fancy camera work and only one brief instance of showy editing, when the train is bearing down on Umberto and Flike and de Sica uses some rapid cutting and the shrill sound of the train whistle for heightened effect. Otherwise he makes no overt attempt to pull the viewer's emotional strings either through technical means or through overemphasis, recognizing the powerful emotional force of the story and standing aside to let it do its work.
Still, there's no denying that Umberto D. is a litmus test of any viewer's susceptibility to sentiment in film: if this movie doesn't melt your heart, none ever will. It's the kind of movie which contains scenes, situations, and images—and inspires emotional responses—that you will never forget. And it contains two of the greatest performances ever committed to film. One by seventy-two year old Carlo Battisti, a retired professor from Florence who made exactly one movie in his life, as Umberto. The other by a mongrel named Napoleone as his devoted canine friend Flike.
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This post is part of the Classic Movie Dogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe, which runs February 19-22. Click here for the full schedule.
Umberto D tells the story of an old man named Umberto D. Ferrari and his struggle to keep from falling from poverty into shame. This is one of the greatest of all films from the Neorealism movement, and even when they're sweet scenes that involve Umberto and his little dog Flike; they are shown without being portrayed too sentimental or manipulative as most animals in stories usually are. The bond between Umberto and his dog Flike is one of the sweetest and most tragic relationships in all of the cinema, as it helps emphasize the lonely elderly working class people in Post World War II Italy. Umberto D. and Flike both love each other because when you're at an old age where your family, friends, health, money and home deprive you; an animal can be your best friend. The director Vittorio De Sica was the genius behind the masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves; and here he tells another powerful story on poverty and survival; except now it's about an elderly man who will be soon kicked out of his apartment and onto the streets. Umberto D was the fourth film that the great Italian director Vittoria De Sica and his longtime collaborator and writer Zavattini had made together after World War II, and it was also the first one that was a failure. His first film Shoeshine which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film and TheBicycle Thieves were both international hits; and when Umberto D was released it was a flop at the Italian box office. The Christian Democratic Party and the Communist Party attacked De Sica and Zavattini for Umberto D as being too "pessimistic", and "slandering Italy abroad." Of course time has changed many people's opinions and views of the film as many now believe Umberto D to be not only one of De Sica's greatest films next to The Bicycle Thieves, but the last official film of the Neorealism movement.Neorealism, as a term, can mean several things; it often refers to films of working class life and of the struggles and social conditions of people set in the culture of poverty. Italian Neorealism was a revolutionary breakthrough, not just for its technical style and raw film-making, but for the gritty realism of its story and poignant naturalism of its characters. The aesthetics of Neorealism included films that were mostly shot on a very low-budget and on real locations not using any stages or props. It was also a style which casted non professional actors because it brought a sense of reality to the characters, where the acting seemed more natural and real. After decades of Hollywood gloss, real people instead of actors were startling to audiences. With the character of Umberto, you deeply feel for him like you feel for Charlie Chaplin's the Little Tramp. A retired government worker Umberto was once distinguished and respected, and now all his education has no real purpose in this new harsh world of poverty and cruelty. Umberto is played by the nonprofessional 70 year old actor Carlo Battisti who gives a naturalistic and haunting power to his performance. Film critic Roger Ebert said it best about Umberto and Charlie Chaplin. "It is said that at one level or another, Chaplin's characters were always asking that we love them. Umberto doesn't care if we love him or not. That is why we love him."
In the beginning of the film the Police disperse an organized street demonstration of elderly men demanding a raise in their meager pensions. Elderly men are holding signs saying "Raise our pensions. We worked our whole lives. We want an increase!!" One of the marchers is Umberto D who's mixed in with the elderly demonstrators. They are all told they don't have a permit by the police and must leave immediately with them eventually being chased out.
A few of the older men run into an alley with one of the men being upset that they didn't get a permit for the rally, and that they should have stayed home instead. Umberto says, "A 20 % increase would be enough for me, to pay off my debts for a year." The other men say how they don't have any debt. When the coast is clear the elderly men leave and go on their own ways. Umberto says to another man, "I have no one, no son or brother, to help me out. I'm just a good for nothing old man. Who can live on 18,000 lire these days? My landlady charges me 10,000. She even raised my rent, that old..." The other man tells him to go ahead and say what he wants to say because their both men. "If she's a bitch, she's a bitch."
Later that day Umberto smuggles his small dog Flike into a dining hall where the elderly are given free lunches, and quietly slips some food under the table for Flike, while tricking the stern welfare workers by switching plates. He tries to sell his watch for money, but people either aren't interested or they have one of their own. While walking out with his dog one of the welfare ladies says she saw him feeding his dog from under the table and will kick him out if he does that again. Before returning back to his apartment Umberto is able to sell his watch but unfortunately only gets 3000 lire for it instead of 4000.
He returns to his room and finds a young couple already in there. He learns that while he was gone his landlady Olga has rented his room out for an hour to an adulterous young couple. Umberto is angry and starts shouting and Olga tells him to stop yelling and that it's her apartment not his. She tells him they are friends of hers and are just resting there for a while. She rudely says "your leaving at the end of the month anyways!" She threatens to evict Umberto at the end of the month if he cannot pay the overdue rent which is fifteen thousand lire. Umberto says, "what a way to treat someone kicking him out after 20 years!"
During the argument the young maid Maria is in the room witnessing it all and after Olga leaves Umberto tells Maria that Olga has no right to kick him out. "Where will I go?" he tells her. Meanwhile, the sympathetic and innocent Maria listens to Umberto as she does dishes in the kitchen spraying at the ants climbing through the walls; as the apartment is infested with them. Even though they have a huge difference of age Maria confides in Umberto and asks him, "Can you see anything Mr. Umberto?" She then tells him she is three months pregnant and he says, "And you say it just like that?"
Olga doesn't know because if she did she would let Maria go. Finally Umberto is allowed back in his room after the young couple leave and a few minutes later Maria walks in and looks out his window waving to some of the young boys leaving a military school across the street. She calls Umberto over to see something and points out two of the boys saying, "the tall one is from Naples, the short one is from Florence." When Umberto asks which one is the father she says, "both of them. I think...the one from Naples. They both deny it."
Umberto asks Maria if she can get him hot water because he's not feeling so good and several minutes later Olga comes to his door saying that Maria is her maid and not his. Olga then yells, "I'm throwing your things out on the 30th. I'm evicting you." Umberto just ignores Olga's threats as he gets into bed with his dog Flike but the ant infestation in the apartment makes him restless. Umberto is feeling very ill and asks Maria to look in his throat to see if she sees anything. She says it looks big. "She's hoping I'll die but I'm not going to", he tells her about Olga.
Umberto then gives Maria 3,000 lire to give to Olga but wants a receipt. Maria goes to Olga who's hosting a large social party for several friends and a few minutes later Maria comes back with the money and tells Umberto that Olga said he owes her 15,000, and it's all or nothing. That evening Umberto can't sleep so he leaves the apartment and roams the street to sell some of his sentimental books but unfortunately is offered much less and accepts because he has a fever. Later that evening when returning to his apartment he knocks on Maria's door and gives her 5,000 lire more for Olga. "To pay my debts, I'd have to go a month without food," Umberto says. He then asks Maria if she has practiced her grammar and she says she hasn't. He tells her she must keep up with the practicing because most people take advantage of the ignorant.
Later Maria again comes to Umberto's room with his money and again says that Olga won't accept unless it's all or nothing. That evening Umberto can't even get any sleep because of all the loud noise from the party that Olga is throwing. That next morning the bed is empty with Flike just lying there as you see Umberto on the phone calling the hospital with a high fever. There's an emotional moment with Maria in the kitchen as you see her grind coffee and do some chores while she looks in the mirror as tears roll down her face. Suddenly the emergency doctors arrive all thinking it's more serious than it is carrying a stretcher. When Umberto walks out of his room already finished dressing himself; the doctors are confused because he looks just fine. Before leaving Umberto asks Maria to watch over Flike while he goes to the hospital.
While at the hospital Umberto is enjoying the clean sheets and free meals. One of the doctors says to the patient next to him, "This guys healthier then I am. What's he doing here?" The doctor sees Umberto and tells him he has tonsillitis but he's too old now to have them removed. Now that Umberto's fever has gone the doctor tells him he can leave the next day. Umberto tries to fib and say he has a pain on his side to stay longer but quickly dismisses it. The patient next to him says he should have lied about the pain because staying in a ward is better than a hotel; in which the stranger gives him helpful tips on what to say to the nurses to let him stay longer.
Maria comes by all dressed up to see Umberto and to check on how he's recovering. When Maria tells him Flike is out in the courtyard with one of Maria's boyfriends, Umberto quickly gets out of bed and runs over to the window agitating all the patients. He sees one of the boys out there with his dog and he asks Maria, "So is that the father?" Maria says, "Mr. Umberto if you asked me to swear to it, I couldn't. But I sense it was him." When she tells him that the boy doesn't admit it is, Umberto says when he gets back he will make both the boys talk. Maria informs Umberto that Olga's getting married to a wealthy man and that Umberto has to leave because she needs his room.
The next day Umberto and the patient next to him are both dismissed and the patient tells Umberto that he'll try to find another way to get back in the ward. When Umberto returns to the apartment, he finds workmen renovating the entire place. Umberto goes into his room and he can't find Flike. When on the street he sees Maria and she tells Umberto that Olga kept opening the front door and Flike got out. Umberto thinks Olga did it on purpose and gets a ride to the dog pound to find Flike as he waits in line for the next truck. He notices a room where they kill animals that aren't retrieved by their owners and it worries Umberto. Umberto is taken in to see the animals that were brought in the last few days. In a powerful scene he finally sees Flike being brought in by the next truck and they reunite.
When walking back with Flike Umberto sees Olga on the street with her rich fiancée and he says to her, "See, he's not dead! We'll be going to your funeral, not the other way around!" Olga says, "You wretch! Pay your debts! Tomorrow the doorman will kick you out!" Umberto walks away and when seeing a beggar on the street begging for cash; it worries Umberto that his life might have to come to that.
Suddenly Umberto runs into an old working friend from his past and when talking Umberto tells him how all he needs is 2000 lire for this month's rent but the friend ignores him, turns a blind eye and catches the bus. While walking on the street Umberto is so desperate for rent money he unwillingly stands against a wall and puts out his own palm, halfway, not really committing himself to beg for money. As a man is about to give him some cash, Umberto turns his hand over, as if testing for rain. He has too much pride in himself that he cannot get himself to beg. He then thinks and gives his hat to Flike, in which Flike sits up and holds his hat in its mouth, while Umberto hides nearby. "Be still!" He shouts to Flike. But he cannot do this as well because he does not want to demean his dog by making him do something he would not do.
He later quietly sneaks back into the apartment trying to pass by Olga unseen. The apartment complex looks much nicer and refurnished, and when seeing Maria she is now is wearing a more high-class uniform for her job. When entering his room Umberto now finds a gaping hole in the wall and most of the room taken down. Maria comes in and tells him that Olga wants to make his room into one big formal living room. Umberto doesn't say anything as he just sits their on his bed depressed and so Maria leaves him by himself.
Umberto gets up and looks outside to see the train tracks and starts contemplating suicide but then looks over at Flike who is resting peacefully on his bed. That night he packs the rest of his things and decides to leave; knowing there is no way he would be able to stay there now. When leaving Maria runs out to see him go and Umberto lies and says he found a place. Umberto tells her she needs to leave as well because there are much better jobs in Rome. Maria says, "She'll kick me out the minute she finds out I'm pregnant." Before he walks out Umberto says to her, "Get rid of the one from Florence."
Near the end of the film Umberto attempts to find a home for Flike, first with a couple who board dogs but when he notices the other dogs that they own are much larger and more intimidating then Flike; he decides against it. Umberto then runs into a little girl he knows in the park and offers her Flike to raise but the nanny makes her give the dog back. Flike runs up to a bunch of kids playing and Umberto slowly backs away trying to make his getaway and hides under a footbridge, but Flike runs out and finds him.
In one of the most emotional moments in film history Umberto holds Flike in his arms and walks to a railway track as a speeding train approaches. The camera closes up on Umberto's face of pain and anguish as he is about to step out onto the track but Flike gets frightened and wriggles free and flees. Umberto calls out to Flike but Flike won't come near him. Eventually the dog gains his trust again and runs up to Umberto. Umberto then starts playing with him in the park saying, "Run, Flike, Run!"
Italian Neorealism came about as World War II ended and Benito Mussolini's government fell, causing the Italian film industry to lose its center. Neorealism was a sign of cultural change and social progress in Italy. Its films presented contemporary stories and ideas, and were often shot in the streets because the film studios had been damaged significantly during the war.
The neorealist style was developed by a circle of film critics that revolved around the magazine Cinema, including Luchino Visconti, Gianni Puccini, Cesare Zavattini, Giuseppe De Santis and Pietro Ingrao. Largely prevented from writing about politics (the editor-in-chief of the magazine was Vittorio Mussolini, son of Benito Mussolini), the critics attacked the white telephone films that dominated the industry at the time. As a counter to the popular mainstream films, including the so-called "White Telephone" films, some critics felt that Italian cinema should turn to the realist writers from the turn of 20th century.
Both Antonioni and Visconti had worked closely with Jean Renoir. In addition, many of the filmmakers involved in neorealism developed their skills working on calligraphist films (though the short-lived movement was markedly different from neorealism). In the Spring of 1945, Mussolini was executed and Italy was liberated from German occupation. This period, known as the "Italian Spring," was a break from old ways and an entrance to a more realistic approach when making films. Italian cinema went from utilizing elaborate studio sets to shooting on location in the countryside and city streets in the realist style.
The first neorealist film is generally thought to be Ossessione by Luchino Visconti in 1943. Neorealism became famous globally in 1946 with Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City, when it won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival as the first major film produced in Italy after the war.
Most neorealism films are generally filmed with nonprofessional actors--although, in a number of cases, well known actors were cast in leading roles, playing strongly against their normal character types in front of a background populated by local people rather than extras brought in for the film.
They are shot almost exclusively on location, mostly in run-down cities as well as rural areas due to its forming during the post-war era, no longer being constrained to studio sets. The topic involves the idea of what it is like to live among the poor and the lower working class. The focus is on a simple social order of survival in rural, everyday life. Performances are mostly constructed from scenes of people performing fairly mundane and quotidian activities, devoid of the self-consciousness that amateur acting usually entails. Neorealist films often feature children in major roles, though their characters are frequently more observational than participatory.
Open City established several of the principles of neorealism, depicting clearly the struggle of normal Italian people to live from day to day under the extraordinary difficulties of the German occupation of Rome, consciously doing what they can to resist the occupation. The children play a key role in this, and their presence at the end of the film is indicative of their role in neorealism as a whole: as observers of the difficulties of today who hold the key to the future.
Many of the films involved Post-synch sound/dubbing employing conversational speech, and local dialects. They also included funtional rather than ostentatious editing that would draw attention to itself, as shots were organized loosely. Many neorealism films involved stories that were episodic, elliptical, or organic in structure. Plot were preferable not a tight framework of cause and effect, but a more fluid relationship between scenes which approximated how events would occur in real life.
Many of the films had a sense of a documentary impulse & immediacy in filming, shifting away from the pretense of studio stories. It wanted to be a cinema that attended to the details and trials of everyday life, of the material experience of average people in difficult situations. It also had a concern with the lives of working-class people and a social commitment and humanist point of view to contemporary stories that spoke to the historical present. Vittorio De Sica's 1948 film Bicycle Thieves is also representative of the genre, with non-professional actors, and a story of a 'everyday man' and his hardships of working-class life after the war.
Italian Neorealism rapidly declined in the early 1950s. Liberal and socialist parties were having a hard time presenting their message. Levels of income were gradually starting to rise and the first positive effects of the Ricostruzione period began to show. As a consequence, most Italians favored the optimism shown in many American movies of the time. The vision of the existing poverty and despair, presented by the neorealist films, was demoralizing a nation anxious for prosperity and change. The views of the postwar Italian government of the time were also far from positive, and the remark of Giulio Andreotti, who was then a vice-minister in the De Gasperi cabinet, characterized the official view of the movement: Neorealism is "dirty laundry that shouldn't be washed and hung to dry in the open."
Italy's move from individual concern with neorealism to the tragic frailty of the human condition can be seen through Federico Fellini's films. His early works Il bidone and La Strada are transitional movies. The larger social concerns of humanity, treated by neorealists, gave way to the exploration of individuals. Their needs, their alienation from society and their tragic failure to communicate became the main focal point in the Italian films to follow in the 1960s. Similarly, Antonioni's Red Desert and Blow-up take the neo-realist trappings and internalize them in the suffering and search for knowledge brought out by Italy's post-war economic and political climate.
Neorealism screenwriter Cesare Zavattini said, "film should address not 'historical man' but the 'man without a label.' I dare to think that other peoples, even after the war, have what they continued to consider man as a historical subject, as historical material with determined almost inevitable actions...For them everything continued, for us, everything began. For them the war had been just another war, for us, it had been the last war...The reality of buried under the myths slowly reflowered. the cinema began its creation of the world. Here was a tree, here, an old man, here, a house, here a man eating, sleeping, a man crying...The cinema should accept unconditionally, what is contemporary. Today, today, today."
French film critic Andre Bazin on neorealism: "No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say that the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality, there is no more cinema."
In the period from 1944–1950, many neorealist filmmakers drifted away from pure neorealism and into a period of "rosy neorealism" of Italian films of the 1950's. Some directors explored allegorical fantasy, such as de Sica's Miracle in Milan, and historical spectacle, like Senso by Visconti. This was also the time period when a more upbeat neorealism emerged, which produced films that melded working-class characters with 1930s-style populist comedy, as seen in de Sica's Umberto D.
There are different debates on when the Neorealist period began and ended. Some claimed it ended in 1948, with the shift in power from the left to the centrist Christian Democrat Party and with the inclusion of Italy in the Marshall Plan, which began to subsidize the film industry once more. Many claimed that the cycle ended with De Sica's Umberto D in 1952.
Robert Kolker suggests a useful way of thinking about "two Neorealisms. 1) on the one hand a group of films made between 1945 & 1955, and 2) on the other Neorealism as an idea, an aesthetic, a politics...both a form of praxis and an ideal to aspire to."
Irrelevant Actions were an aesthetic that neorealism provided. Andre Bazin essay on Umberto D saying, "the most beautiful sequence in the film, the awaking of the little maid, rigorously avoids and dramatic italicizing. The young girl gets up, comes and goes in the kitchen, hunts down ants, grinds the coffee...and all these 'irrelevant' actions are reported to us with meticulous temporal continuity."
More contemporary theorists of Italian Neorealism characterize it less as a consistent set of stylistic characteristics and more as the relationship between film practice and the social reality of post-war Italy. Millicent Marcus delineates the lack of consistent film styles of Neorealist film. Peter Brunette and Marcia Landy both deconstruct the use of reworked cinematic forms in Rossellini's Open City. Using psychoanalysis, Vincent Rocchi characterizes neorealist film as consistently engendering the structure of anxiety into the structure of the plot itself.
Umberto D. is perhaps the most astringent film ever made about a poor old man and his dog. Critics today tend to like the astringent parts: the long, deliberately undramatic sequences full of mundane activity (such as a housemaid’s morning routine), performed with little or no dialogue and shot as if in real time. People who admire the work of such contemporary filmmakers as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chantal Akerman, and Abbas Kiarostami can see something up-to-date in this aspect of Umberto D., and even recognize in it a principal source of today’s cinema of the steady gaze.
These same critics generally dislike the pooch. They feel that screenwriter Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio De Sica did enough to immiserate their title character by depriving him of youth, family, friends, health, money, and home. Surely an audience needs no further prompting to feel the isolation of Umberto Domenico Ferrari. That the filmmakers also make him go everywhere with little Flike—clutching him to his breast, fretting over his well-being, ultimately begging the dog to come play with him—seems to these viewers an almost invasive ploy, as if Zavattini and De Sica were trying to force into their hands an already soggy handkerchief.
But as someone who begins weeping at the first notes of the title music—someone who thinks this film’s long, undramatic sequences can be seen best when watched through tears—I wouldn’t want Zavattini and De Sica to have backed off. I believe their greatest work, which surely includes Umberto D., kept touch faithfully with popular sentiment, even while helping to create the decidedly unpopular tradition of the art-house film. Perhaps today’s division between auteurist productions and mass-market movies might be eased, and contemporary cinema enlivened, if our filmmakers would more often put themselves at risk as Zavattini and De Sica did with Umberto D.
Of course, this prescription is open to question, considering that Umberto D. was released to utter disaster.
It was the fourth film that Zavattini and De Sica made together after World War II, and the first to fail. Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) had brought into focus, for domestic and international viewers alike, the intuitions, concerns, and methods of Italy’s best postwar filmmakers, and so had established neorealism as a movement. The impact on critics was enormous. “No more actors,” André Bazin wrote of Bicycle Thieves, “no more story, no more sets—which is to say that, in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality, there is no more cinema”—or, rather, that the film is “one of the first examples of pure cinema.” The impact on audiences was equally strong, with both Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves winning the Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
But what Zavattini and De Sica had established with these earlier films they brought to a close with Umberto D. Although the picture won the support of viewers abroad—the New York Film Critics Circle voted it best foreign film of the year, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Zavattini’s script for best screenplay—Umberto D. was a miserable flop at the Italian box office. Worse, upon its release in early 1952, the film came under attack from Giulio Andreotti in Libertà, the weekly organ of the Christian Democratic Party. Since the Christian Democrats had full, seemingly permanent control of the government, and since Andreotti (later to serve seven times as prime minister) controlled the state’s movie production loans, and exercised the right of precensorship over scripts, the brand of film criticism he practiced was unusually powerful.
According to Andreotti, De Sica was guilty of “slandering Italy abroad” by “washing dirty linen in public.” Writing in the voice of his party, his government, or the Italian nation—it wasn’t clear which—Andreotti said: “We ask De Sica not to forget the minimal commitment toward a healthy and constructive optimism that can help humanity to move forward and to gain some hope. It seems to us that the world fame that our directors have rightly acquired gives us the right to demand that he accept his duty and fulfill this task.”
This official condemnation, however damaging, would not have been enough in itself to doom Umberto D. with the public. You might imagine, for example, that the Christian Democrats’ political rivals would have rallied to the film. But the main opposition was the Communist Party, which had conducted its own attack against Zavattini and De Sica for what it too saw as pessimism. And so, in Italy’s highly politicized film culture, Umberto D. opened without organized support, to compete against the recently revived Cinecittà’s superproductions and such government-subsidized fare as Don Camillo (1952), a nougat-centered clerical farce.
With the dismal release of Umberto D., Italy’s neorealist period came to an end. But was the film itself dismal? Or was the pessimism that offended viewers in 1952 no more objectionable, intrinsically, than the sentimentality that bothers some critics today?
For the beginnings of an answer, one need look no further than the first images of Umberto D., which dramatize an impromptu street demonstration by old-age pensioners. The event has the circumstantial brusqueness of a news item—one of those fatti di cronaca that Zavattini liked to use as seeds for his stories. The street, shown in deep focus, appears to have more than enough space to accommodate the crowd. There’s even room for a city bus, which noses forward in the opposite direction of the march, as if to assert the rights of normal routine. Although Alessandro Cicognini’s music comes on with the throb of verismo opera, the initial view prompts curiosity more than tears. Some viewers may even let out an ironic laugh when the police drive in to break up the protest and the camera, shooting through the windshield of one of the cops’ jeeps, records the pursuit of the demonstrators: a gang of old men, who huff away in hats and flapping overcoats.
The camera glimpses Umberto two or three times during this ruckus, but it does not single him out until the protesters have dispersed, to pronounce curses against their own organizers and recover their breath. So Umberto D. introduces its protagonist as one figure among many. His situation, at first glance, seems faintly ridiculous. His person—embodied by the nonprofessional actor Carlo Battisti, a Florentine professor of linguistic science—is distinguished by an alert, somewhat rabbity face and fussy manner, which hint at a lifetime of intelligence expended to no real effect on the world.
The burden of decorum, the futility of culture: the film touches on these themes lightly, almost comically, in its opening sequence, but soon begins to insist upon them by positioning Umberto between two characters of contrasting status—apparently the last two people in the world with whom he is still in contact. As an educated, middle-class man, he might be expected to feel closer to the woman from whom he rents a room, but she is a tall, blonde monster of bourgeois pretension. Played by Lina Gennari with all the mannerisms that a veteran actor can muster and Battisti cannot, she comes across rather like an unfunny Margaret Dumont. By the end of the film, she will literally decorate Umberto out of her house, there being no space for him in her version of the high life. And so, despite being a gentleman, Umberto finds himself in concert with the housemaid (another nonprofessional, Maria Pia Casilio, discovered by De Sica when she was an apprentice seamstress), whose dark, ingenuous, button-eyed face is unmarked by book learning.
If I make this character scheme sound more diagrammatic than it actually plays, it’s only to make a crucial point about what Umberto D. is not. Unlike other neorealist films, such as Shoeshine or Bicycle Thieves, it is not a story about the working class. Nor does Umberto D. concern itself with the neorealist theme of economic hardship as such, despite Zavattini’s quickness in telling us, right in the first scene, how many lire Umberto gets for his monthly pension, how much he pays out in rent, and how much he owes. Beggars abound in the film, soup kitchens and charity wards extend their provisional shelter; but Zavattini also makes it plain that Umberto needs these resources partly because he ran up debts, while other pensioners are in the clear. When I say that Umberto D. pushes neorealism to new extremes, then, it’s not only because of the film’s extraordinary concentration on the mundane but also because of its subject matter, which goes to the limit of social criticism. Yes, poverty and old age bear down on Umberto, in ways that are specific to Rome in the early fifties—but the key problem is indecency. Umberto is slowly being stripped of his dignity, and even of the desire for dignity.
Which brings us back to Flike. He is the only major character other than the landlady to be played by a trained performer, the canine actor Napoleone. Perhaps this fact accounts for the movieness of Umberto’s interactions with him—a movieness that offends people who want a “perfect aesthetic illusion of reality,” giving the impression of “no more cinema.” But De Sica was not necessarily one of these people. He had spent his life in show business; in his youth, he had been Italy’s most popular star. He knew that sentiment is as legitimate a mode of storytelling as irony or satire, so long as the sentiment is honest—which I believe it is in Umberto D. If the main character feels that his humanity itself is slipping away, his sense of being a proper man, then why shouldn’t he have a sentimental relationship with a dog?
The great critic I. A. Richards once remarked that you could characterize an era of history according to a certain choice between anxieties: were people more worried about being thought sentimental or stupid? In Umberto D., two very smart filmmakers had the courage to jerk tears, and created a masterpiece. Couldn’t we use a few more?
Umberto D was the fourth film that the great Italian director Vittoria De Sica and his longtime collaborator Zavattini made together after World War II and it was also the first one that was a failure. His first film Shoeshine which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film and TheBicycle Thieves were both international hits; and when Umberto D was released it was a flop at the Italian box office. The Christian Democratic Party and the Communist Party attacked De Sica and Zavattini for Umberto D as being too "pessimistic", and "slandering Italy abroad."
Of course time has changed many people's opinions and views of the film and people now agree it's De Sica's greatest film next to The Bicycle Thieves. Vittorio De Sica was one of the main founders of neorealism. Alongside the great director Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini's earlier films, their films attempted to give a new degree of realism to cinema. Neorealism, as a term, can mean several things; but it often refers to films of working class life and of the struggles and social conditions of people set in the culture of poverty. Neorealism were films that were mostly shot on very low-budget and were even filmed on real live locations that didn't use any stages or props. It was also a unique style because they used non actors which brought a sense of reality to the characters, and the acting seemed more natural.
There are only two trained actors in this film and that is Olga the landlady and the canine actor Napoleone who played Flike the dog. (Which isn't surprising since he does a lot of things only a trained animal could do.) After decades of Hollywood gloss, real people instead of actors was startling to audiences; and the impact on critics was huge. "No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say that in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality there is no more cinema...or rather that the film is one of the first examples of pure cinema," says critic Andre Bazin describing the poetic world of Italian Neorealism.
De Sica made several other amazing films, including Shoeshine which told the story of two shoeshine boys sent to reform school for black-marketeering. Bicycle Thieves which is considered his masterpiece and one of the greatest films in the world, which tells the story about a father and a son looking for a stolen bicycle that the father desperately needs for his job to put food on the table. Miracle of Milan which was a light romantic fantasy, Two Woman which told a grim story about a homeless woman played by Sophia Loren who was raped during the war (and who won an Oscar for her performance) and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, about an Italian Jewish family that tries to ignore the gathering clouds of doom.
There have been a lot of different thoughts on when exactly the end of the Neorealism movement began, but some believe it ended with Umberto D. What legendary French critic Andre Bazin found extremely beautiful about Umberto D. was the way De Sica presented 'irrelevant actions' within its narrative. For instance the sequence in the early morning in which the young pregnant Maria wakes up early and goes into the kitchen to do her normal kitchen routines, (while at the end of this gentle sequence she is shown slowly tearing up probably because of the hard life that awaits her,) is really quite extraordinary. These irrelevant routines and small quite moments are what make Umberto D the poignant and beautiful film that it is.
"The most beautiful sequence in the film, the awakening of the little maid, rigorously avoids dramatic italicizing. The young girl gets up, comes and goes in the kitchen, hunts down ants, grinds the coffee...and all these 'irrelevant' actions are reported to us with meticulous temporal continuity."
Even though Umberto D is about poverty and dignity it is also completely different from De Sica's earlier films like Shoeshine or Bicycle Thieves. Where those character's were born out of poverty, it seems that Umberto wasn't always poor. When running into his old government friends they all seem to be doing financially well. Umberto over the years probably made several poor financial choices in his past which got him to be high in debt (which is never explained why) while other pensioners are in the clear. Even the blonde monster of a landlady Olga has her reasons for kicking him out. She has a business to run and Umberto can never come up with his rent. And she like all of us wants to better herself and move herself up, in which she does as she literally decorates Umberto out of his apartment because there is no room for him in her new high life with her rich fiancée. Umberto D is considered Ingmar Bergman's favorite film. De Sica wrote about the casting of Umberto D saying, "Until I can find the man, woman or child who fits the figure I see in my mind's eye, I do not begin. Before fortune smiled on me once again, I had searched Rome, Naples, and other cities and had lingered for hours, for days even, in those places where I was most likely to find the kind of old-age pensioner who was the hero of my film...but I had not yet met the person who from the first had smiled at me with sorrowful dignity from the pages of the script." Even though Umberto D tugs on your heartstrings it never seems intentional or manipulating. The film is told without any false drama and even if the audience knows Umberto is thinking of suicide it never becomes melodramatic for the audience. The film is made in such a subtle and calm way where instead of having the audience feel sorry and sad for him; you understand his motives and reasoning instead of pitying him. In some ways this film is just as much Umberto's story as it is Maria's. They are both two people completely different in age, life experience and ways of life; and yet they both come to an understanding and respect for one another without judging each other. They look past their flaws and mistakes and care for one another because they both realize they are both victims of the same cruel world. Umberto is a man who is coming to terms with the struggles he's been dealing with his whole life while Marie is just beginning to deal with her upcoming struggles in her life. Umberto isn't the clique 'old man' that you pity or feel sad for like in most movies. He is a strong hardworking man who has too much pride to succumb to being homeless and stripped of his dignity. And in many ways his dog Flike saves his life and gives him a reason to keep living and fighting. Umberto has the inner strength to endure misfortune and never lose his self-respect and as long as Flike and Umberto are their for each other; I have a feeling he will prevail.