Umberto D. (1952)
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Cast: Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari
Synopsis: An elderly man and his dog struggle to survive on his government pension in Rome.
Umberto D. tells the tale of Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), a retired civil servant who has fallen on hard times because his state pension does not pay enough to provide for even his meagre needs. We first meet Umberto as he attends a protest rally by ex-civil servants demanding an increase in their pensions. The rally is broken up by the police, who have no time for these bothersome old folk and show them no respect as they set about dispersing the crowd. This lack of respect and absence of empathy is the theme that runs through this movie. In the character of Umberto, director Vittorio de Sica bravely chooses not a kindly or lovable figure through which to make his point, but a man whom it is sometimes a little difficult to like.
But then, enduring the indignities suffered by Umberto would be enough to make anyone a little cranky. As the film unfolds it provides an increasingly broader understanding of the pressures that are bearing down on him at a time in his life when he should be enjoying the rewards from his years of service. He lives in a room in a crumbling apartment block that’s infested with ants. When he’s out roaming the streets, his blowsy landlady (Lina Gennari) rents his room to couples who need somewhere for their sexual liaisons. To add insult to injury, she blatantly admits to increasing his rent to a level he can’t afford in order to force him onto the streets. Umberto loudly voices his objections, and vows that he will make the payment somehow, but we, like him, know deep down that his cause is hopeless. Even if he was able to make that month’s payments, he would have nothing left to sell in order to meet the following month’s rent.
We follow Umberto around the city streets as he attempts to find the money. He tries to sell his watch, but nobody is interested. He eats in a shelter for the homeless, and steals food for his dog, Flike, who is his constant companion. Too proud to ask old friends and work colleagues for money, Umberto resorts to pointedly remarking on how difficult he is finding it to make ends meet. His friends politely smile as they listen but they never offer to loan him the cash he needs. Eventually, he is reduced to attempting to beg, but his pride prevents him from resorting to such a degrading tactic.
All this, de Sica records in the Neo-realist style. filming on the streets of Rome and using a mix of professional and non-professional actors (leading man Battisti was actually a retired professor). He films the story without trying to manipulate the audience’s emotions, allowing instead the element of pathos within the story to stir its emotions. For this reason, Umberto D. never for one moment feels sentimental, even though the story it tells is heart-breaking. Battisti does a wonderful job of communicating the faltering pride and sense of injustice experienced by his character with the use of gestures and glances, and in doing so he creates a wonderfully authentic character, complex and vain, but grounded and pragmatic. He’s aided by young Maria Pia Casilio as Maria, the young girl who works for Umberto’s landlady, and who has discovered she is pregnant by one of two men.
The plot of Umberto D. is a bleak one, and yet, in the same way that it doesn’t sentimentalise, de Sica’s matter-of-fact style of filmmaking prevents the film from ever really becoming depressing. That doesn’t mean we don’t care enough about the characters involved, however, and the ending is a curiously bittersweet one that leaves us hopeful for the future of Umberto and little Flick, even though our instincts tell us that little happiness lies ahead for them.
(Reviewed 26th February 2013)