Film scholar and critic André Bazin captured perfectly the essence of Italian neorealism when he described it as “an ideal synthesis between the rigor of tragic necessity and the accidental fluidity of everyday reality.” Ironically, he wrote these words in response to a screening at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival of Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., which most historians date as the last neorealist film, given it commercial and critical failure in Italy.
De Sica was one of the most well-known of the neorealist directors, and his 1948 film Bicycle Thieves is often regarded as the pinnacle of that film movement. Yet, although it was harshly criticized and failed at the box office in 1952, Umberto D. has grown in stature to the point that it is now considered one of the best—if not the best—film of the period, one in which de Sica and his frequent screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini, captured the nuances and details—that is, the concrete reality—of a solitary man’s life in an impersonal modern city.
The man in question is Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti, a professor at the University of Florence in his only acting role), an aging, retired civil servant who cannot make ends meet on the meager pension offered to him by the government. Umberto is a fascinating character, and while on paper he sounds like a sentimental sad sack, he is much more complex. We sense his dignity and how deeply he fears being reduced to a beggar on the street, yet we can also see that he is sometimes self-absorbed and stubborn. His problems are dire, but it is clear that he bears some responsibility for them. He is, then, a flawed character, which is crucial because it is his recognizable flaws—in other words, his humanity—that keeps him from becoming a sentimental caricature.
When the film opens, he is taking part in a pensioners’ protest in Rome, which is quickly broken up by a convoy of army vehicles that is the very definition of overkill (the tired old men being run off the street by Jeeps might be funny if it weren’t so pathetic). While this could have been used to establish an overbearing political message on the film, De Sica and Zavattini instead use it to convey the simple economic realities of Umberto’s life. He is a proud and upstanding, yet he has gotten himself into debt that he cannot quite dig out of. He is on the verge of being evicted from his single room by the apartment’s cold, bleach-blonde landlady (Lina Gennari), who wants to make the entire floor into a love nest for her and her fiancé.
Umberto is not completely alone in life, though. He finds sympathy with Maria (Maria Pia Casilio, another first-time actor discovered by De Sica), the bright-eyed teenage maid who works in his apartment. Maria fears that she will be fired when the landlady finds out that she’s pregnant. Umberto is sympathetic to her plight, as he never falls into high-minded judgment of her, even when she confesses that she doesn’t know for sure who the father is—perhaps a man from Naples, perhaps one from Florence. Umberto and Maria share aloneness in the world, and their scenes together are sweet—they give the sense of hope that human beings can make a connection, even if it is imperfect.
The only other companion Umberto has is his little dog, Flike. Flike goes with him everywhere and is the closest thing he has to a soul mate. The film never forces the sentimentality of this relationship, though; instead, it allows us to see through Umberto and Flike’s actions that they are companions who look out for each other. Flike is an economic burden to Umberto, yet when he is temporarily lost, Umberto is willing to do anything to get the dog back. The scene at the dog pound in which they are reunited ranks high on any list of moving dramatic scenes in a movie, not because it plucks maudlin strings, but because we have come to understand Umberto so deeply by that point that we feel what he feels, however silly it may seem.
Umberto D. moves smoothly between dramatic (sometimes borderline melodramatic) scenes and moments in which nothing of any narrative importance happens. The texture of everyday life in Rome in the early 1950s is as much the subject matter of the film as is Umberto’s quest to acquire enough money to pay his back rent and avoid being evicted. One of the most intriguing scenes in the film simply follows Maria as she goes about her morning routine, lighting the stove and grinding coffee beans (pausing momentarily to touch tentatively her expanding belly). It’s a scene that doesn’t move the story forward an inch, but tells us much about Maria and all the young girls in the world who lead similar lives.
Aesthetically, Umberto D. is not as coarse as some neorealist films. It uses black-and-white photography, location shooting, and natural lighting, but De Sica’s camera movements are fluid and often beautiful, betraying the handheld documentary style often associated with such films. The use of actual locations in Rome lends the film a feeling of authenticity, as do the naturalistic performances by everyone involved, most of whom were not professional actors.
Yet, what makes it all so effective is that none of these aesthetic aspects of the film intrude on the story’s emotion, but rather come together to support and enhance it. As the story of a few days in one man’s life, Umberto D. is a masterpiece of emotional intimacy and the possibilities of human compassion writ on a canvas of appreciable reality. It is a film in which not a single note feels false, and in today’s market of commercially driven fantasy, that’s something worth seeking out.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick
Overall Rating: (4)
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