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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Umberto D.

Director: Vittorio De Sica
Country: Italy
Year: 1952

“I’ve lost all my money on these films. They are not commercial. But I’m glad to lose it this way. To have for a souvenir of my life pictures like Umberto D. and The Bicycle Thief.”
Vittorio De Sica

“My films are a struggle against the absence of human solidarity… against the indifference of society towards suffering. They are a word in favor of the poor and unhappy.”
Vittorio De Sica

“So we’re in rags? Then let us show our rags to the world. So we’re defeated? Then let us contemplate our disasters. So we owe them to the Mafia? To hypocrisy? To conformism? Then let us pay our debts with a fierce love of honesty, and the world will be moved to participate in this great combat with truth. The confession will throw light on our hidden virtues, our faith in life, our immense Christian brotherhood. We will at last meet with comprehension and esteem. The cinema is unequaled for revealing all the basic truths about a nation.”
Alberto Lattuada, on Italian neorealism

“We sought to redeem our guilt. We strove to look ourselves in the eyes and tell ourselves the truth, to discover who we really were, and to seek salvation.”
Vittorio De Sica, on Italian neorealism

Background

Before I can tell you about De Sica, I have to tell you about Italian neorealism. Before I can tell you about Italian neorealism, I have to tell you about Mussolini’s son and Cinema magazine.

Even before that, I need to tell you about the Telefono Bianco films.

SO: In the 1930’s, the Italian box office was dominated by (American-inspired) films about wealthy families with beautiful daughters and palatial homes containing the ultimate accoutrement of the bourgeoisie: White Telephones (or Telefono Bianco). As you might imagine, these films were what you might call “socially conservative.”

A group of critics, including such luminaries as Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, and Cesare Zavattini (screenwriter of today’s film), all writing for the influential Cinema magazine, were disgusted – disgusted, I tell you! – by these phony depictions of Italian life. They advocated for a more naturalistic film aesthetic, focusing on the real lives of ordinary people, honestly depicting postwar struggles with poverty, disillusionment, and societal alienation.

Thus the Italian neorealist movement was born, utilizing non-professional actors and authentic location shooting, eschewing manipulative melodrama in favor of episodic slice-of-life stories. The roots of the Danish Dogme 95 movement can easily be traced to postwar Italy and this group of critics.

One defining characteristic of the neorealist movement was its frank grappling with Italy’s fascist past and its aftereffects. This political stance was not stated quite so explicitly at the time, however, seeing as how Cinema‘s editor-in-chief was none other than Vittorio Mussolini, Benito’s son.

Modern synopses of the Italian neorealist movement typically cite Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) as the first neorealist film. The film most often associated with the movement, however, was Bicycle Thieves (aka The Bicycle Thief, 1948), directed by Vittorio De Sica. This landmark film told the simple story of a laborer who must locate his stolen bicycle before he can accept a job. Bicycle Thieves was acclaimed by critics around the world, won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and resonated profoundly with audiences in Italy.

Sadly, most modern synopses of the neorealist movement trace the collapse of the movement to another De Sica film: Umberto D. More accurately, the venomous critical reactions to the film, and its poor performance at the box office, signaled that audiences were losing interest in neorealist films. With prosperity (presumably) just around the corner, they no longer wished to be reminded of their country’s fascist past or poverty-stricken present.

Speaking for the Christian Democrat majority, Giulio Andreotti (who went on to serve seven terms as Italian prime minister) rebuked De Sica for “slandering Italy abroad” and “washing dirty linen in public.”

Did I forget to mention that Andreotti also controlled film funding at the time?

But the criticism came not only from the Right; the Communist Party condemned De Sica and Zavattini for the film’s “pessimism.”

Umberto D. was released with little studio support, and fared poorly in Italy. Although it was De Sica’s personal favorite of his collaborations with Zavattini, it was to be their first major flop.

In the U.S., the reception was a bit warmer; the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, and the New York Film Critics Circle pronounced it the Best Foreign Film.

Although it marks the end of Italian neorealism, it should be noted that Umberto D. is not a strictly orthodox neorealist film. For one thing, there are a couple of snazzy cinematographic tricks: the quick zoom down to the bricks indicating Umberto’s suicidal thoughts, for one. Also, the point of view becomes decidedly subjective at times, in defiance of neorealism’s call for a more objective, observational style. Finally, the performances by the two professional actors (Lina Gennari as the landlady, and Napoleone as the dog) and the heart-tugging score mark Umberto D. as a film pushing against the now-limiting constraints of neorealism.

For comparison/contrast with today’s film, I recommend:

Wendy and Lucy
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Synopsis

Some kind of demonstration march is going on; senior citizens are carrying signs (“We Worked Our Whole Lives!” and “Justice for Pensioners!”) and chanting (“We want an increase!”). They march to the City Hall and demand to see the minister. “We’re taxpaying citizens!” says one old-ish man. “We’re starving!” says another. The crowd is ordered to disperse, but they refuse, so the Polizia arrive to make them disperse whether they want to mf-ing disperse or not.

One of the demonstrators is a neatly-dressed elderly gentleman with a small dog.

umberto_d01

He is the titular protagonist, Umberto Domenico Ferrari. His mutt’s name is Flike (or Flick, or Flag, depending on whose subtitles you believe).

“Who can live on 18,000 lire?” he sadly asks a fellow marcher, and no answer is forthcoming.

In a soup kitchen, Umberto sneaks leftovers to Flike, hiding beneath the table.

“I saw everything,” the waitress tells him. “Tomorrow I’ll kick you and your dog out!”

Umberto has a watch that he’s trying to sell, but there seem to be no takers, and he keeps lowering the price. Finally, a panhandler trades Umberto his day’s take (a wad of small bills stuffed in a bag) for the watch. The windfall still isn’t quite enough for Umberto to pay his back rent, and his horrible landlady (a brassy blonde with a permanent sneer) threatens to evict him.

Meanwhile, she’s charging young couples 1,000 lire an hour to shack up in Umberto’s apartment. “They want 20,000 lire for a rat hole,” he protests impotently, “and then it’s full of rodents!”

Umberto hangs out in the ant-infested kitchen with a sympathetic young maid, Maria, who feeds Flike and confesses to the old man that she is pregnant.

The father is a soldier, either the tall one from Naples… or possibly the short one from Florence.

If crushing poverty, impending homelessness, and rapidly changing social mores were not enough to worry about, Umberto also has a nagging cough.

“I’m throwing your things out on the 30th,” the horrible landlady shouts through the door.

Umberto has 3,000 from the sale of the watch, but the landlady says it’s 15,000 or out you go. He sells some books to a street vendor for 2,000, leaving him only, let’s see… 10,000 lire short. “She’ll get the rest when I get my pension,” he promises, but it’s no good; 15,000 or hit the bricks.

Umberto is running a fever. An opera-singing party (?) at the apartment of the horrible landlady prevents him from getting much-needed shut-eye.

After many restless hours, Umberto calls for an ambulance.

Maria sits alone in the kitchen, absently rubbing her growing belly and silently weeping. At dawn, the ambulance arrives to take Umberto to the hospital. He must leave behind his beloved Flike.

Turns out he’s not really that sick – “just common tonsillitis” says the attending doc – but Umberto games the system to stay in the hospital for a week, thereby reducing his expenses.

When Umberto returns to his rented room, he finds chaos. Workmen are tearing down the wallpaper, putting up new curtains… and Flike is missing.

The horrible landlady left the door open, and the scamp escaped. Umberto uses some of his desperately-needed savings on a taxi to the dog shelter. In a surprising bit of luck, Flike is just arriving in a paddy wagon, and is joyously reunited with his owner.

This happy event does nothing to solve Umberto’s housing problem, of course. Seeing a wealthy friend of his on the street, Umberto outlines his problem, hoping for a loan. His friend uncomfortably turns away to catch a bus. Seeing the apparent success of an aggressive panhandler, Umberto swallows his pride and puts his hand out on a street corner.

When someone tries to put some money in his hand, however, Umberto withdraws his hand in shame. He even gets Flike to hold the hat, which is certainly cute, but doesn’t inspire much in the way of cash donations.

Weary and discouraged, Umberto returns home, only to find his apartment completely gutted. He stares without comment at a gaping hole in his bedroom wall.

“She wants to turn it into one big formal living room,” Maria explains.

After Maria leaves him, Umberto opens the window and considers jumping. Looking at Flike, sleeping on the bed, he reconsiders. Instead, he begins packing. In the morning, he puts on his hat and coat, gathers his things, and leaves the building quietly. Flike follows his master out into the street, and onto a streetcar bound for who-knows-where.

At an informal (and filthy) doggy daycare, Umberto briefly considers leaving Flike, but ultimately can’t bring himself to abandon his only real friend.

At a park, Umberto sits on a bench with his suitcase, wiping his brow and pondering his options.

When Flike plays with some children, Umberto takes the opportunity to leave. But brave, clever little Flike knows something is up and chases after his master. His eyes wet with tears, Umberto tosses a pine cone for Flike to retrieve. “Bravo, Flike!” he shouts, as the dog chases the pine cone and leaps joyfully, oblivious to the troubles of his master.

What I Liked

I liked the mixture of professional and non-professional acting styles. Carlo Battisti, actually a professor of linguistics at the University of Florence, underplays his part to heartbreaking effect. His lack of artifice works perfectly for the title role; I can only assume that there is more than a bit of Battisti himself in this lonely and slightly fussy old man.

One of the only professional actors in the film is Lina Gennari, who plays Umberto’s horrible landlady. One of the Criterion essays compares her to an “unfunny Margaret Dumont” (if you don’t know who that is, you need to rent some Marx Bros. films, my friend), and that’s spot-on. In contrast to the other, more naturalistic, performances in the film, Gennari turns in a stage actor’s performance. Surprisingly, it works, primarily because the landlady is a character hiding behind artifice, performing the role of an upper crust matron, denying her humble past.

I loved the long, defiantly undramatic scenes of Maria working in the kitchen and killing ants with fire. Also: the lengthy scene of Umberto trying to sleep.

I also appreciated that Umberto is not portrayed as some kind of saint; the opening scenes make clear that his financial dire straits are at least partially due to his own mismanagement. He is not above screwing a fellow soup kitchen customer in order to feed his dog. He lies about his health to stay in the hospital.

More than once, his pride prevents him from accepting or asking for sorely-needed help. Umberto is a relatable human being, complete with flaws, not some iconic special case. We are there with him every step of the way, as his dignity is methodically stripped away by a society which no longer finds him useful.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

While the “movie-ness” of Lina Gennari’s performance worked for me, I had a very different reaction to the other professional actor in the film: Napoleone. The dog was cute and all, but every time he performed an adorable little trick, I felt manipulated.

Also, the ending seemed like a bit of a cheat. A few years back, Robin and I saw a fantastic Romanian film titled The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. It chronicles the harrowing last night of the title character, an old pensioner with heart trouble, and ends with a long shot of Mr. Lazarescu lying on a stretcher in a hospital corridor. Gradually, his breathing stops, and he dies, utterly alone. It was crushingly powerful, but exactly the right ending. Given everything we had seen up until the last minute of this week’s film, I expected a similar ending for Umberto D., and was left feeling a bit disoriented by the final shot.

Should You See It?

Yes. Despite the potentially gloomy subject matter, Umberto D. is surprisingly funny at times, absolutely compelling, and never heavy-handed. The (human) performances are pitch-perfect, and the b/w cinematography is beautiful without being distractingly showy. Finally, the film itself, and the differing contemporary reactions to it, provide rich insight into social and political conditions in post-war Italy. Actually, that made it sound boring, which Umberto D. is decidedly not.

Next: The Virgin Spring

3 Comments

  1. I cried harder in this movie than any movie I’ve ever seen. It was brutal, but unforgettable.

  2. Despite its imperfections, this is probably one of my top 5 films. I need to see it again.

  3. Back in the 70’s there was a popular film about an old guy and his cat. The film was called “Harry and Tonto” – today’s film could easily be called: “Umberto and Flike” – instead it’s entitled: “Umberto D.”

    The film starts surprisingly enough with a bit of a row. Seems that a bunch of old Italian workers are a mighty pissed that their pension checks aren’t as much as they should be (or were). They just need a little boost. So there’s a riot of sorts (more yelling and sign waving) than anything and as the government disperses the group we focus on one particular gentleman and has cute dog. He quickly explains a couple things.

    1. He’s in debt.
    2. His landlady is a bitch.

    Scrambling to get some cold hard cash, he tries to sell a watch. Seems that, yes, he’s a bit hard up and if only something good would happen, all would be right with the world. He struggles to sell the watch, and gets a little lunch for him and his dog (and is threatened to be kicked out of the restaurant if he brings the dog in again).

    When he returns back to his apartment he finds that his room is being used for a tryst. Though he owes 15,000 lire (for rent and back rent), the landlady (bitch) is using his place for people to have sex (she gets 1,000 lire per hour – not a bad deal, if you ask me).

    Stuck waiting for the couple to be done, our old guy hides out in the kitchen and talks to Maria. Maria is an absurdly cute maid who confides in him that she’s preggers (and she doesn’t know who the father is). Though initially shocked by this news Umberto doesn’t take a judgmental attitude (that you might expect) but takes a genuine concern for her. He knows that the landlady (bitch) will kick her out if she finds out.

    With the sex finally done, he returns to his room. It’s small. Cozy. But has wallpaper that looks like he lives in walls made of a leafy hedge. I even thought for a moment: “Is he living outside?”

    Still, he’s not feeling well (got himself a fever) and Maria helps him by getting him the thermometer, bringing him some tea (or something) and being a good friend.

    But what of the landlady (bitch)? She’s an aspiring opera singer who hates Umberto and can’t wait to see him go so she can get on with renting out the room and making some good money. Umberto, though, tries to pay her off with what he’s got but she keeps sending Maria back to him: “All or nothing.”

    Frustrated, Umberto looks up a couple old friends and tries to make conversation but though they ask him how he’s doing he never really confides in them that he’s struggling. Finally he decides to go to the Catholic infirmary and get over this cold. In a moment where we finally see a bit of compassion in the landlady’s eyes, he is carted out in a stretcher (trust me, the compassion won’t last).

    I know what you’re saying: “What of the dog???” Yes, what OF the dog. The dog is his constant companion, but he has to do a ruse to escape the dog while he’s being carted away. Maria will watch after Flike while he’s recovering.

    His stay at the infirmary isn’t long as Maria shows up and he sees his dog across the street. He even opens a window and threatens to get everyone sick(er) just to say hi to his beloved Flike.

    When he returns to his apartment, though, Flike is gone! Spending money he shouldn’t, he travels to the dog pound where they collect stray dogs. In some of the most emotional scenes ever put on film…he struggles to find his dog before it is put to sleep. When he DOES find the dog, it is a wonderful sweet moment.

    Returning back to his apartment he finds that it has been torn apart by the landlady (bitch). Though he tells Maria he’ll have all the money once he gets his pension check and that he’ll fight – we know he doesn’t have the strength and when the walls have been ripped open and the horrendous wallpaper has been torn down, it’s all that he can do. He contemplates begging, but he can’t bring himself to do it. He contemplates throwing himself from the window, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Finally, sadly, he decides to leave.

    Bidding “ciao” to Maria and telling her he left her something in his drawer, he leaves to…?

    His first stop is a dog boarder. They’ll take is dog for 100 lire a day. Umberto is willing to pre pay 6,000 lire as he doesn’t know how long he’ll be on “vacation” but then has a change of heart. He then attempts to give the dog away to a little girl but the girl’s nurse(?) says no. He then attempts to run away and hide from the dog, but the dog finds him (curse those dog noses!) and then, finally, he contemplates throwing them both in front of a train – which only scares the shit out of the dog and then Umberto has to ask for forgiveness.

    Then…the movie ends.

    WHAT I LIKED:

    This is a very sweet, sweet story. It certainly rises above the Benji crap of the 70’s. The themes of loss, dignity, love, compassion, forgiveness all ring very true. The old man playing Umberto is spot on perfect. The fact that he always dresses professionally even when his life is unraveling around him shows his desire to hold onto the dignity he had while working for 30 years.

    The young actress playing Maria is also very good.

    WHAT I DISLIKED:

    Though the film hit me in the gut emotionally a number of times, I still had some issues with it. The complete caricature of the bitch of a landlady. She’s so one-dimensional that I’m surprised she didn’t just float away like a piece of paper. There’s also an underlying bitterness in the film. NO ONE, except for Maria and a guy at the infirmary, wants to help poor Umberto (and of course, he’s not asking, either). Also…can’t he find another apartment somewhere? What ties him to this place? Could he not go to the authorities? Doesn’t he have SOME rights as a renter?

    But…I think my biggest issue about the film is that it ends but it doesn’t finish the story. It’s not one of those moments where you go: “Wow, that was amazing, I wonder what happens next.” It’s more one of those moments where you go: “Is that it?” What of Maria? What did he leave her? What of Umberto? What of Flike? I wanted more closure – just him getting on a train would be enough but I really felt like the director didn’t know how to end it and just said: “Okay, we’ll stop here.” So in some ways I felt cheated by the ending of the story as opposed to feeling like I had seen something fully complete. But, hey, maybe that’s just me.

    OVERALL:

    It’s a lovely sweet story, well acted, well filmed. But, sadly, leaves you wanting more but not in a good way.

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