Umberto D (1952) – The worst side of reality?

Umberto D. – Italy – 1952 – 88 minutes – Black & White – 1.37:1 – Italian – Criterion Collection Spine #201

  

“I’m tired, tired of everything.”

FOREWORD

Umberto D. is a neorealist film in a sense, but it is also something of a departure – it has a certain elegance, a beauty in its construction and way it is visualized. But it is still involving in the same way Ladri Di Biciclette and Sciuscia’ were.  My friend and I were not aware of the pace or the design. It was a story, pure and simple, and we were totally identifying with the old man. There is a sense of doom hanging over Umberto D and the girl, but it is not forced – it’s simply there in the terrible reality of post-war in Italy. De Sica and Zavattini plan and shoot actions, moments rather than scenes. They draw gently into the rhythm of the man’s life, the habits, the rituals – by the time the film is over you feel as though you have lived in that room, as though you know every inch of the hallway outside – so that you’re seeing things from his perspective, life the way he lives it.     Umberto D. is a real emotional ride but you couldn’t call it a tearjerker. Orson Welles once said that he admired De Sica because he could do something that Welles could never dream of, which is make the camera “disappear”. Welles was talking about Sciascia’, but the same could be said of Umberto D.   (Martin Scorsese)

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Umberto D. is an emblematic movie of Italian neorealism and it is one of the most successful artistic creations of the couple De Sica (director) – Zavattini (writer). Some critics, when the film was released, accused the duo of showing only the worst side of reality. A famous Italian politician, at that time, once said that, after watching the movie, he had to go home and have his clothes washed because he felt dirty. “It felt like a stab in the back”, he also added.

The film is dedicated to Umberto De Sica and perhaps the name of the protagonist – the pensioner Umberto Domenico Ferrari – is a further tribute to Vittorio De Sica’ father,  although the D. (with the . after it) could mean depersonalization of a man who loses dignity.

Umberto D. is a movie about of a pensioner who lives alone. A man who cannot afford to get to the end of the month, despite already living a very modest life.  It is a story of a defeated man surrounded by a cruel society that brutally pushes him in a corner. A society that does not know what to do with him.  He now lives in a hostile harsh world. He even contemplates suicide.

At the beginning of the movie we see Umberto D. trying to sell some old books and his watch to raise money. His landlady wants to evict him since he has not been able pay the rent. Only two things are keeping him alive and sane: the affection for his dog and Maria, the young servant in the house where he is renting a room.  The maid is pregnant but not married, which at that time was a great shame. Her boyfriend is a soldier in Florence who does not want to marry her.  Umberto tries a few times to cheer her up and to talk about her problems but their ideas are too far apart. They do not understand each other because they are too distant generations.

The Director paints a picture of deep solitude around the protagonists, also using an intense music score, with background noise that alternates with short dialogues.

Umberto D.  has tonsillitis and gets to the hospital  just so he can finally eat decent meals without paying.  He even befriends a nun, with the help of another patient, to extend the stay.

After leaving the hospital, he finds out that he hasn’t got a place where to live anymore. His landlady has already started the works to extend her room into the old man’s one.

A desperate Umberto contemplates suicide: “I’m tired, tired of everything”, he says He caresses his dog, takes the suitcase and decides to leave.

Now the most dramatic part of De Sica’s movie begins. Umberto would entrust the dog to someone, but nobody is willing to keep it for free and especially not to secure him and treat him well.  Umberto decides to die with his dog. De Sica immortalises his intense expression in a dramatic shot as he approaches the level crossing. He is about to get hit by a train but the dog saves him  by running away. Umberto tries to catch him desisting from committing suicide.

The last shot of the movie represents hope:  the pensioner runs with his dog as he passes a group of children.

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AFTERWORD

I watched again Umberto D., whilst preparing for this #criterionblogathon, with a different attitude comparing to the one I had when I saw it the first time (I was 18 when Umberto D. entered my life).  In the meantime I have grown up and, let’s face it, got older too.

I am certainly not a movie critic, but I think that some of the scenes from this movie are pure poetry, with images that speak for themselves, without the use of any words. The gestures of everyday life, leaving to the images rather than a dialogue to tell the story.  Some moments, like the one where Umberto holds his hand out and then suddenly turns it the other way (like if he realises he was going to betray his dignity), reminded me of some Charlie Chaplin short movies where a smile is overwhelmed by sadness and tears.

More people should watch this masterpiece but, I fear, only few will ever see it. Because, in our world, a story without violence, without the exaltation of success, without the presence of a hero, without sex, will never be fully appreciated apart from real movie lovers.

What’s happening to Umberto D.? At the end of the movie he does not die. He just goes away with his little dog. Where is he going? What is he going to do tomorrow? What kind of life is he going to have?  

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Umberto D. (1952) – Directed by Vittorio De Sica – Writer: Carlo Zavattini – Actors: Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, the Dog

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