Movies Don’t Get Sadder Than ‘Umberto D.’
By Todd Hill
It’s been drilled into our collective heads over the past several years that there aren’t enough motion pictures featuring compelling female characters, or that there are far too few substantial roles for blacks, Hispanics, Asians … the list goes on.
And the complaints are generally legitimate, but when it comes to shortchanged demographic groups on the big screen, there is one in particular that’s been routinely overlooked far more consistently than all the rest — the elderly.
More films than not feature senior citizens simply because their storylines require an old person or two, but rarely are they integral to the story, fully fleshed out characters or much more than cliched tropes. So it was with a sigh of relief that I happened on “Umberto D.,” Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 masterpiece of Italian neorealism about an aged pensioner. Right? Well ….
“Umberto D.” is not in any sense an enjoyable film to watch. The tension of waiting for the title character’s life to go from bad to worse, coupled with the daily drumbeat of humiliations to which he is forced to submit, is hard to bear. It was with a palpable sense of relief that I reached the end of the movie, and I certainly have no intention of ever watching it again.
But all of that having been said, “Umberto D.” is a brave, groundbreaking and essential motion picture. De Sica’s film may be specific to postwar Italy, but the situation in which Umberto Domenico Ferrari finds himself, and especially the feelings he experiences, should be familiar to anyone who has retired from the workforce once they’ve reached a certain age.
Umberto’s defining characteristic is that he’s alone, as much as anyone can be alone in a big city like Rome. Unable to make his fairly simple ends meet on a bureaucrat’s pension, he’s ceaselessly badgered by his landlady (a one-dimensional baddie) who wants him out on the street unless he pays his back rent. She’s so nasty she’d likely evict Umberto even if he did pay up; she has the walls to his room demolished as part of a remodeling project even as he’s living there.
Umberto has an almost but not quite tender friendship with his landlady’s much younger maid, who is grappling with her own, equally serious problems — she’s poor, uneducated, unskilled and pregnant, with two boyfriends, both cads.
But the real relationship of the film is between Umberto and his dog, a terrier named Flike, although De Sica doesn’t bother to turn his attention to this until his movie is about an hour in. Yes, this is on one level just another one of those heartbreaking motion pictures about a dog and its master, but here’s a helpful spoiler alert — the dog doesn’t die, and neither does the old man. We in the audience, however, are forced to spend 89 minutes expecting one or the other or both to occur, anxiously waiting for those shoes to drop.
A word about neorealism: Umberto and the maid, Maria, are each portrayed by non-actors — Carlo Battisti and Maria Pia Casilio, respectively — the better to reflect the world as it really is, supposedly. That’s basically a lot of bunk. Battisti and Casilio are both perfectly fine; Battisti, in particular, plays Umberto with a consistent touch of pique that helps to de-sentimentalize the character, at least until his cute, little dog takes center stage.
But De Sica devotes several precious minutes to having us watch Maria prepare food in the kitchen in real time that is precisely as riveting as it sounds, all in service to neorealism. Meanwhile, he routinely takes the trouble to frame Umberto in exterior sequences that highlight the architectural glories of Rome. They’re beautiful shots, but hardly realistic.
“Umberto D.,” by most accounts, was the death knell of Italian neorealism in film, and so much the better. De Sica’s magnificent “Bicycle Thieves” (1948) is a neorealistic masterpiece. It can be done. But by the time of “Umberto D.” the director appeared to show signs of losing interest in such gimmicks.
Towards the end of the film, Umberto sees the handwriting on his now-destroyed walls and takes to the streets, Flike in tow, to face an immediate future that can only be described as crushingly bleak. His farewell scene with Maria is sad, but nothing compared to what’s to come for the old man and his dog.
Suicide appears to be Umberto’s intent, but first he must find a home for Flike, which proves impossible. At one point he attempts to wander off while the dog is playing with some children in a park, but Flike finds him. Shortly thereafter, while tightly grasping the terrier in his arms, Umberto stands in front of an oncoming train until the last instant, which utterly terrifies the dog. The movie ends with the two partners making up and playing in the same nearby park.
The crucial, most telling moment in De Sica’s picture, however, occurs much earlier, when Umberto ventures to the local dog pound to find Flike, who had briefly gone missing. There, he sees scores of animals being hauled off to their imminent demise, unloved and unwanted. The parallel here is obvious. What’s more cruel, to be quickly and painlessly exterminated when there’s no longer a place for you, or to be left alone to choose your own fate?
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.