Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)

Well, it’s Italian Neo-Realism.  It’s a no-bones-about-it depiction of the soul-crushing conditions for poor pensioners unable to support themselves in lower-class Italy.  There’s a cruel landlady, ants on the walls, soup kitchens filled to the brim with hungry men, beggars lining the street, and dogs being incinerated at the pound.  So when the well-dressed, stubbornly optimistic Umberto Domenico Ferrari and Flicke, practically the most adorable and intelligent dog on the face of the earth, are introduced into the equation, you just know they’re doomed.  That’s the lot in life of the underprivileged everyman protagonist in the neorealist worlds of Vittorio De Sica.  Antonio, the hero of “Bicycle Thieves,” couldn’t find that all-important bike that was his only means of survival, so he was swallowed up in a sea of other dejected workers in an astonishing final shot – swallowed up by the system.  And so now Umberto (and little Flicke) are doomed to a similar fate, ‘cuz that’s how Neorealism rolls.  Little about their fate is in question, but boy do you hope everything turns out OK anyway.  Such a likable hero in such a miserable setting, fighting with quiet dignity for something as simple as a place to sleep and the means to feed his dog.  “Umberto D.” is the ultimate feel-good story of a man and his dog, and the ultimate downer – the warmest of the heartwarming and the saddest of the sad, every high and low.  In other words, everything a great, involving film should have.

Italian Neorealism’s a funny thing (well, not funny like that…).  Yeah, it’s realistic, essentially going out of its way to show you the minutest of details in an everyman’s daily life, serving to emphasize how pitiful that daily life can be.  And yet, in De Sica’s films like this one and “Bicycle Thieves,” there’s the sweeping orchestral score, the camera regarding the sad faces of the movie’s characters for long stretches of time, and situations that put the protagonist’s dependent (Antonio’s son in “Bicycle Thieves” and Flicke the dog in “Umberto D.”) that suggest weepy melodrama that goes out of its way to tug at the heartstrings.  Wouldn’t exactly expect realism and melodrama to gel, would you?  But it’s an interesting, even fascinating combo, especially in “Umberto D.”  Does De Sica focus a little too much on deplorable living conditions or how bad these people have it to send a message?  Or a little too much on the contrast between the downtrodden yet honorable lower class and the well-to-do but cruel middle and upper class?  Maybe.  Any semblance of a narrative does slow when we take time out to watch Maria, the pretty and pregnant maid who’s Umberto’s only (human) friend, light a newspaper on fire and wave it against the wall to drive away ants, or lines of filled beds in a run-down clinic, or dogs being wheeled to their doom at the pound, or the elegant apartment of Umberto’s landlady and her snobby friends.  It’s a narrative interrupter, but it’s all striking.  It’s moments like this, with no music to emphasize emotion as De Sica’s inexperienced actors go about their lives in shitty surroundings, where Neorealism is at its most…real.

And then there’s the music, the melodrama, the crude caricature that is Umberto’s wicked witch of a landlady, the tragic hero that is Umberto, and of course the embodiment of innocence and sympathy, Flicke.  It’s there where the movie departs from stark realism and you’d think that sappiness and forced sympathy would be shoved down your throat.  But shit, this works too, and it’s all ‘cuz of Umberto and who he is.  He’s played by Carlo Battisti, a man who had never acted before (as usual with De Sica) and would never act again, but you wouldn’t know it.  Hell, this movie benefits from an inexperienced actor playing the lead role.  You could argue that a run-of-the-mill actor would play up the sympathy actor, have Umberto wallow in despair as the poor little old man to suck the tears from our eyes.  If that were to happen, a performance like that would combine with the sappy music, depressing plot and caricatures around him in one big tornado of crude melodrama and be little more than a feature-length soap opera.  But man, Carlo Battisti gives Umberto class and dignity despite the deplorable, hopeless world around him.  When his cruel landlady insists on tearing apart his room in anticipation of kicking him out while he still lives there, he just bears it and goes to sleep.  When he has himself taken out of his home on a stretcher, he’s not all that sick, it’s more like the equivalent of faking sick to get out of school….but who could blame him?    When he’s in the hospital and a visiting Maria tells him that Flicke’s waiting downstairs, Umberto’s eyes widen and the man bolts for the window like a kid running towards the tree on Christmas morning.  When Flicke goes missing while he was away, Umberto’s search for his beloved dog is understandably desperate, and you can tell he’s worried for that dog as if it were his child, but in no way does this man wear the full extent of his emotions on his sleeve like a lesser character in a lesser sob-piece of a movie would have done.  When he’s reduced to begging, he can’t go through with it, and when he’s reduced to getting his dog to beg for him, damned if he’ll subject little Flicke to that kind of humiliation.  That man and his dog are in this together – they survive together, they might die together, but boy do they need each other.  

And the ending!  My god, does that ending run the gamut of emotions!  Funny, heartwarming, touching, uneasy, and downright tragic, all in one note.  In a movie that, other than a few moments, has little emotional embellishment and regards even Umberto’s thoughts of suicide as matter-of-factly as possible, this ending might as well be the emotion-grabbing successor to the climax of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid.”  Snobs would call it downright insulting and exploitative to use that adorable little dog to tug at the heartstrings, but I give those snobs a big fuck-you.  Isn’t it interesting how we’ve become so desensitized to physical or emotional harm to human characters in film, and yet a cute little animal in peril automatically brings on the waterworks?  Anyway, it works here because you can read that last shot any number of ways, as an upbeat ending or a bleak one.  In both “Bicycle Thieves” and “Umberto D.”, the last shot features a character walking away from the camera towards a horizon (another similarity to some Chaplin films, though much bleaker here of course), amongst a sea of people.  In both films, a protagonist is swept up in that sea of people, lost in the sea of lower-class hopelessness.  In “Umberto D.,” at least, Flicke found Umberto hiding in that bush (one of the great cinematic moments, like, EVER) – a glimmer of hope finding the hopeless in a sea of hopelessness.

I could go on about how great “Umberto D.” is technically, about the great, subtle cinematography that emphasizes minute details (which it is).  But this ain’t about cinematography.  I’m not interested in “Umberto D.” as some pretty-looking travelogue (and really, why would you want a travelogue of slummy apartments and makeshift clinics and dog pounds?).  It’s all about one man being treated like a piece of paper getting passed around through a bureaucracy, never finding its proper destination (and hell, even Flicke attains that status with the other dogs at the pound) – that one piece of paper, that one man, being a microcosm of the plight of an entire group of people in an entire place in time.  In another movie, outward signs of decrepitness or weakness or other exaggerations meant to garner sympathy would’ve turned a protagonist into a metaphor, would’ve been outrageously out of touch with its audience.  But Umberto’s different.  He and Flicke are treated like the paper in a bureaucracy, sure, but Umberto never becomes that paper.  He remains a man.  A tried-and-true, realistic, flesh and blood man in a (aesthetically realistic) work of fiction, placed up against a melodramatic (some would argue shamelessly exploitative) tearjerker of a situation, yet we sympathize every step of the way.  Italian Neo-Realism’s a funny thing.



1 comment so far

  1. Lauren on

    Great stuff. I share your reservations about neorealism; it hasn’t really had its day with me yet. But few films have ever moved me quite like Umberto. Lord, that ending! It caught me so off my guard, ah, I just wept.

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