DVD Review Of Umberto D.

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/7/06


  Lost between the glare of his earlier The Bicycle Thief, and his later films with Sophia Loren, Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 film Umberto D. stands as an almost forgotten masterpiece of Italian Neo-Realism, and one of the last films that could claim to be of that movement alone. It was pilloried by myopic critics upon its opening- mostly Left Wing dilettantes who thought that the formerly middle class civil servant’s tale was not ‘socially conscious’ enough for the filmmaker to waste his talents on, and a few cineastes who felt it too maudlin and weepy. They simply did not understand the chasm between true sentiment and false sentimentality. The film flopped, but has steadily risen in De Sica’s pantheon to being thought of as an equal to The Bicycle Thief, or right behind it. The truth is that it is very easy to portray the struggles of the impoverished, as De Sica did in The Bicycle Thief, and Shoeshine before it, as both were laden with struggling children, but to elicit the grandeur of feelings for an old man, Umberto (Carlo Battisti, non-professional actor and retired college professor from the University of Florence), alone in the world, takes a bit more. This is especially so since the lead character is not a particularly warm man. No, he’s no Ebenezer Scrooge, but he’s a proud and stubborn man who keeps himself emotionally withdrawn from life. He’s an everyman, in that he was a civil servant, retired with a meager pension, and has lived in the same small room for decades, harried by a bitch of a bleached blond social climbing poseur of a landlady (Lina Garrari), who loathes him for unspecified reasons- she says he’s behind on the rent, but how many people have never been in such a predicament, and are not treated the way she scorns this old gentleman? She even debases him by renting out his room to horny couples while he’s away, and a scene of him returning to his soiled bed after strangers have copulated in it is precious- the look of disdain on Battisti’s face is utterly priceless.

  The landlady also loathes Maria (Maria Pia-Casilio), her pregnant out of wedlock maid, who is Umberto Domenico Ferrari’s lone human friend, and does not know who had fathered her child- her lover from Naples or from Florence. If she finds out her maid is pregnant she will fire her. Umberto’s only true friend is his cute little dog Flike. Yet, this is all we ever know of the man. We do not know if he is a lifelong bachelor, if he’s a widower, if he has children or grandchildren. Could they help him? If so, why aren’t they doing so? Even as the film opens, we are shown that Umberto is nothing special. He’s one of dozens of old pensioners marching for a raise, and being derisively jeered by younger people and the police. The old men are being herded like cattle, and it’s only after a few of the old men take refuge in a building’s hallway that we meet Umberto. He complains of needing the raise to pay his debts, but the other men just want the money, and have no debts, and blame the march organizers for not getting the needed permits, even though the bureaucrats refused them. We see him try to pawn off his few items- including old books, to meet his harridan landlady’s demands, as he covertly feeds his food at a soup kitchen to his dog. We see the insect-infested building he lives in. Maria- the living definition of cutey-pie, with her round features, slim figure, and olive complexion, tries to get rid of ants by hosing them from the sink or burning newspaper against the wallpaper. Even Umberto’s bed is crawling with ants.

  Later, we see Umberto ill- but not as much as he claims, and heading to the hospital, where he can stay rent free. When he’s finally taken away on a stretcher even the landlady looks puzzled- is she happy, guilty, or simply perplexed as to whether or not she had a role in the outcome? At the hospital, he meets a jovial younger man who instructs him how to scam the nuns who run the hospital into letting people stay longer than they are sick by asking for a rosary, and faking piety. But, in the meanwhile, his landlady has literally ripped apart his room, violated his privacy, and allowed Flike to run away. As an animal lover myself, this sort of crisis is the equal to losing a child, and to the old man, Flike IS his child. He takes a cab to the dog pound, where he has to buy a cheap glass to get change for a thousand lire, to pay his fare, then tosses the glass to the side. This is a real moment of the sort rarely seen in films today. We see dogs in cages being wheeled en masse into gas chambers, and the panic that sets into Umberto’s gaze is palpable and reaches out to the viewer. After Umberto is taken from the front desk we see a man behind him who cannot pay to save his dog, and the camera ends with the man’s jowly despair. Umberto, however, finds Flike, but the camera doesn’t linger on their reunion in a sappy Hollywood fashion.

  On returning home, Umberto realizes he will be forced out of his room, after the landlady has fully gutted it in his absence, and a few old friends he encounters cannot or will not offer financial help, only bon mots. He looks out his window, and contemplates suicide by tossing himself to the street, but, in the most revelatory moment of the film, he looks back at Flike on his bed, and realizes that without him Flike will likely end up killed at the pound. He can kill himself, but not abandon his dog, which similarly will not abandon him. Never is there a moment when we think that Umberto is not perfectly logical. So, he takes off, in the middle of the night, with one small suitcase, says goodbye to Maria, and tries too board Flike, but when he sees how greedy and cold-hearted the boarders are, he cannot do it. Despairing, but unwilling to leave Flike alone, Umberto heads with Flike to a park. He offers to give Flike to a young rich girl who’s always loved him, but her nanny is as cold as his landlady and refuses for the girl. He then tries to leave Flike with some little boys, but the loyal dog finds him hiding under a footbridge. Why he would leave the dog with strange boys shows the man’s total desperation, for if no boy takes Flike, he’ll likely wind up back at the pound. With this defeat, an even more desperate Umberto holds Flike and seems ready to step in front of an oncoming train. I winced at the scene, a physical reaction I rarely experience with films. The dog panics, however, runs away, and Umberto tries to recover him, but Flike senses his master is different, and runs from him. After much coaxing, the two are finally reunited, and play together in the park, as we see that Umberto’s suitcase is not even there any longer- even that has probably been stolen. It is just the two of them, and the film ends.

  This is a film long on real sentiment, but short on fake sentimentality, something Hollywood types can never discern. The defenders of the film, however, are also mostly wrong, because they call it Chaplinesque. The thing about Chaplin’s Tramp is that he is indefatigable, while Umberto is tired from the first moment we set eyes on him. He is totally beaten, and only Flike keeps him alive. Just as old married people often die soon after their spouse’s death, so too do old people often die soon after a beloved pet dies. If Flike had never been found, the film should have properly ended with Umberto’s death. But, since Flike seems a healthy dog in his prime, the film’s end is hopeful that the two will have some years together, and perhaps something will turn up, even in a city shorn of kindness, food, shelter, and companionship. But, most of all, this film is about simple human indifference to suffering. The sons of a dying man laugh at his bedside in the hospital, the pound workers blithely take the dogs to their deaths, Umberto’s old co-workers look askance at him- as if diseased, when he tells them of his need, the nanny of the rich girl cares more of her beau than the girl, a woman beats a rug out her window as a poor man is dirtied by its dust below, and there are many other scenes and moments like this which abound. Then there is the oft-commented upon scene where Maria goes through her morning routine, fixing breakfast in the kitchen, smoking out the ants again, and grinding coffee beans, only to end as we see her holding back tears- as the two boys she has been sleeping with both refuse to claim paternity. Yet, she is alone in her despair, even though Umberto offers some help, for she refuses it. Another touching scene counterpoints his lack of pragmatism, which falls to pride, and shows that he- like Maria, will only do so much to help himself. He tries to beg on a street corner, but physically cannot extend his hand to passersby- when one looks to give him money, he pretends he’s seeing if it’s raining and turns over and closes his palm. Then he has Flike hold out his hat, until he sees a former co-worker, and is embarrassed by his scheme. Moments such as these prove that this film is no mere cornball tearjerker, but a real emotional powerhouse of a film.

  That some people have also misread the film to indict the old man for failing to prepare for the consequences of old age shows how out of touch with reality many critics, then and now, are. These are the same people who would deny Social Security to their grandparents who contributed to it for years, and claim the old are selfish for wanting their fair share. Yes, Umberto is behind on his rent- but he was also living in a time of runaway inflation, that would have eaten up any of his meager savings. And, despite the characterizations of Umberto as cold, at times, he is never disrespectful, not in the blatantly obvious ways the landlady is to him. Thus, when one reads criticism of the film that jab at Umberto’s character, or defend the landlady’s sadistic actions, one is misreading the very ‘realism’ that this Neo-Realistic film purports. And the truth is, that just as the dilemma faced by another aging civil servant, in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, made the same year as Umberto D., has not changed in half a century or more, and across continents, neither has the dilemma this film shows really changed, and therein lies the timelessness of this tale- which will likely still be as relevant in five hundred years, albeit unfortunately. Sadly, I’ve known too many real life people like Umberto D., and the foolish criticisms of the film manifest flaws in the critics more so than in the film.

  The camera movements by Aldo Graziati never intrude on the simple tale penned by longtime De Sica collaborator and novelist Cesare Zavattini, which has some minor things in common with the more recent American film My Dog Skip, another great man and dog film. The DVD by The Criterion Collection is very crisp, and the white subtitles never are obscured, although, like the DVD release of The Bicycle Thief, an English language dubbed soundtrack should have been made, as well as a film commentary by some historian or scholar. The disk does come with a 55 minute Italian tv documentary called This is Life: Vittorio De Sica, a 12 minute interview with Maria Pia Casilio, and writings by Umberto Eco, Luisa Alessandri, and Carlo Battisti. Memories of the film by De Sica, and a new essay by film critic Stuart Klawans, are in the insert.

  Umberto D. is a great film, and like its kissing cousin, Ikiru, it shows that films on old people can be every bit as engaging as those about the young and beautiful, and not just run of the mill crap like the Grumpy Old Men fare Hollywood spews. Those who criticize this film and its ending are likely the same sort of cretins who find Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard films to be deep and/or moving. Neo-Realism was a movement that should never have flagged, and the world would be better off if a younger wave of filmmakers picked up the banner dropped over half a century ago, for it showed new ways to tell tales and core at the thing that is human in all things- even in the will of a small dog to live with his master, and what that will generates in return.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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