Umberto D (1952) dir. Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia-Casilio
“Umberto D” is a heartbreaking and unapologetically sentimental film. It’s one in a series of great neo-realist tragedies from De Sica, including “The Bicycle Thieves” and “Shoeshine”. Perhaps it’s his most blatantly heartbreaking film, and wears its heart on its sleeve.
It’s a simple story about a man and his dog.
The film opens on a rally of retired senior citizens protesting for a raise in their pension payments. With the increased standard of living, the elder men who are forced to make a living on their pensions just can’t make ends meet. Umberto (Carla Battisti) is one of them, a sad lonely man, with no family, no friends, just his unconditionally-loving dog Flike. Umberto is Chaplin-esque in our pity for him. He wanders the streets looking for something to do, his glory days are over, but he’s missed his golden years too. It’s desperation for him. De Sica uses his camera framing and deep focus photography to isolate and subjugate Umberto to the environment. He’s often framed at the bottom of the screen with the city engulfing him.
Umberto lives in an apartment complex where, after 10 years of residency, he’s about to be evicted for not being able to pay his rent. Maria, the landlady’s maid, cares for him and gives him companionship. Maria’s discovered she’s pregnant, but not sure who the father is, as a result they discover a mutual need for each other. Throughout the film Umberto moves through scheme to scheme trying to drum up money to pay off his debt. Whether it’s selling his watch, or voluntarily staying in a hospital because its cheaper than a hotel, we watch Umberto’s dignity degrade further and further.
Returning home from the hospital, Umberto finds former home gutted and destroyed, ready to be merged which a neighbouring apartment. Umberto’s pride and dignity is completely shattered as he officially steps down a class to homelessness. His once prosperous life now reduced to just his suitcase and his dog.
Umberto’s relationship with his dog (Flike) is the heart and soul of the film. Umberto cares for him more than himself. They are team in their suffering. Flike’s journey is just as compelling. A heartbreaking scene is Flike’s disappearance and Umberto’s desperate attempt to find him. Umberto goes to the dog shelter where they put down stray dogs. Umberto goes from cage to cage in hopes that he might be there. Eventually they are reunited, and the moment is joyous and brings tears to your eyes.
The finale of the film even more emotional, knowing that, as homeless man, Umberto will not be able to properly feed and care for Flike, he decides to part with his beloved. His attempts to leave him are so moving, you’ve never seen anything like it.
The commonality of the Italian neo-realist films were its simplicity and matter-of-fact portrayal of everyday street life. “The Bicycle Thieves” was about a man and his son trying to recover their stolen bicycle and “Shoeshine”, about two boys who shine shoes trying to save up money to buy a horse. The neo-realist films also use non-actors who bring authenticity and naturalism to their characters. Umberto D was Carlo Battisti’s only ever role in film, and he’s remarkable. As a result we never feel as if we’re being manipulated by the film, only that we’re watching the joys and pains of life unfold in front of our eyes. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Umberto D. - Criterion Collection
Watch as Umberto tries to learn how to beg for change: