A poignant slice of neo-realism, Umberto D (1952) stands alongside The Bicycle Thief (1948) as one of director Vittorio De Sica’s redoubtable, timeless masterpieces. Though initially giving the appearance of perhaps a simplistic tale told effectively, the film conceals a gripping subtext within. Later on, stripped of all artifice, De Sica is able to magnify the power of tiny, strikingly real moments into artful reflections of everyday life, converting his humble ideas into cinematic gold.
Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is an ailing old man, free of physical infirmities but weighed down by the economic despair that has gripped a nation of lower classes. A faceless, loyal public servant for more than three decades, he’s been boarding in the same room for 20 years. But he’s being threatened with eviction by his heartless landlady, Antonia (Lina Gennari), a former friend he helped when she was a girl during wartime who now seems solely driven by greed and plans for reconfiguring her boarding house as a haven for more upscale tenants.
Umberto doesn’t figure in her outlook, and is set to be tossed out like yesterday’s garbage if his arrears aren’t paid in full. With his constant companion, his trusty dog Flag, he trudges through the streets, attempting to sell second-rate watches to suspicious acquaintances in the hope of erasing his debt and restoring that familiar sense of stability provided by his tiny, humble abode for so long.
Mired in a profound despondency forged by the inflexible purpose of the world around him, Umberto is met by the resistance of the old friends he encounters who turn away from him with hurried excuses, seemingly appalled by the pity he now evokes. Here’s a man being slowly buried by the shifting of the sands, clinging to his dignity by a thread, a shadow of his former self.
The cruelty of the world may be embodied most pointedly in Antonia but Umberto saves one defiant spark of life for, venting his moral outrage to her face, yet knowing that the tide will continue to swallow him regardless. Only his relationship with pregnant housemaid Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio) offers any respite from his now tainted perception of home.
Umberto discovers there are limits to how far he can stumble before a final measure of dignified response is undertaken; in one of the film’s most famous scenes, he imagines the pose of a beggar, even assuming an unnatural pose of holding out his hand. Horrified by the implications he pulls back just as a passing stranger begins to draw cash from his pocket out of pity. It’s a scene – one of many – that resonates with wordless power.
Momentarily Umberto has Flag beg on his behalf, standing on his hind legs whilst holding Umberto’s upturned hat to passers-by; but it becomes too heartbreaking for the old man to look upon this forlorn sight and with a familiar face nearing, he exits his hiding place, pretending to gently chastise the dog for his peculiar improvisation.
He searches for a home for his Flag but turns away, no closer to a solution, after being confronted by the pound’s horrifying means of disposing of unclaimed pets in a primitive, makeshift gas chamber. Afflicted by the malaise of living, fearing the reaper’s breath at his throat, he then tries to give Flag away to children, only to be met by the resistance of their mindful parents.
Umberto D is a landmark in Italian cinema, a timeless tale of displacement and its devastating effects; of a generational shift that refuses to take prisoners, leaving the weak to fend for themselves in the margins whilst real life, poisoned by greed, youth and progress, rushes heedlessly by. Non-professional Battisti, in the lone acting performance of his career, is magnificent as a man losing relevance amongst the teeming millions, against a backdrop of social upheaval; the pain of mere existence is convincingly etched in his eyes, making it hard to turn away at times.
Drenching his film in layer after layer of despair, De Sica can’t sustain the relentless pressure of his iron curtain to the very end; steering a lone, feeble ray of light through the black void he offers, lastly, in his final frames, a vision of iridescent optimism, emerging as a reminder of hope in an unforgiving world. True, it feels fanciful, only a momentary diversion from what we assume to be true but moving nonetheless, a delusion to bask and believe in. Regardless, if it doesn’t break your heart in two, you’re not human.