Remotely Familiar: Umberto D

By Cory Bilicko

Umberto D didn’t stand a chance when it was released. A neorealist film that dramatizes the struggles of an elderly man nearing destitution in post-war Rome, it premiered to Italian audiences in 1952 who were ready to put the past behind them and look to the brighter economic future that would indeed come to pass. The government, critical of any movie that might export images of a depressed, unjust Italy, declared it irresponsible filmmaking and subsequently banned the foreign distribution of any films deemed unflattering to the country.
Considering that the main character Umberto represents the universal plight of the elderly– how to survive with dignity when one’s resources and well-being are deteriorating– it’s no surprise that the film was so strongly opposed, ultimately a box office flop and source of critical aloofness.
Umberto, a retired civil servant who is unable to pay his growing debts with his meager pension, is not unlike other Italian senior citizens; the film opens with a rally of aging demonstrators demanding increased pensions. Umberto is seen in the march, but it soon becomes clear that he is unwilling to take part when, after police disperse the crowd, he gets angry not at them, but at the organizers of the demonstration for not attaining the proper permit. It is a subtle character distinction that sets the stage for a journey of alienation as Umberto endeavors to fulfill the most basic human needs: food, shelter and companionship, all the while determined to preserve the one thing he may be left with at the end– his dignity.
After the rally, Umberto and his dog Flag (arguably one of the most adorable canines in cinema history) make their way to a soup kitchen for elderly citizens. Umberto surreptitiously shares his meal with Flag, until one of the food servers spots him doing so and scolds him. It’s a risk he’s willing to take because he doesn’t have the means to feed his pet otherwise. He leaves and, on the street, sells his watch, settling for much less than he’d originally wanted. Since every bit of money he can earn must be applied to his rent, he is forced to be resourceful in finding food, another source being Maria, the maid of the house where he lives. She secretly offers him leftover cake when the landlady isn’t around.
That landlady is bent on Umberto’s moving out. While he’s out trying to sell personal belongings to cover the cost of his room, she rents it out to couples for romantic afternoon trysts. When he does get the space to himself, it becomes evident that the room he is trying so hard to keep is indeed small, dank and infested with ants. Later, after he becomes ill and stays a few days at a hospital, he returns home to find a huge hole in the wall. The landlady has begun renovations on the place, despite the fact that Umberto is still residing there.
Carlo Battisti, who’d had no prior acting experience and was in fact a college professor that De Sica found on the street, gives Umberto an understated but very real grace that makes us feel sorry for him without feeling as if we’ve been manipulated.
Certain moments seem more like a documentary, particularly the one at the kennel, where the overabundance of dogs is being relieved through extermination; it’s a rare kind of moment in a narrative film when we stop and question if what we’re seeing might actually be taking place in front of the camera. It’s chilling, especially since it’s while Umberto is looking for Flag, who’d run off under the care of Maria, distracted by her own efforts to conceal her pregnancy from her employer and figure out which of two men is the father-to-be.
In Umberto D, nonactors inhabit all these on-location scenes, which form a sharp contrast to the sleek Hollywood sets of the time and the “white telephone” films of Italy’s past. There’s a ticking-clock immediacy as Umberto searches desperately for what will likely be not only the very last true companion of his lifetime, but ultimately the sole reason for his own existence.
The final shot is like a beautiful black-and-white painting, with a group of playing children running into the frame, mocking us with blissful youth.
Umberto D is available through the Long Beach Public Library system. Contact the Dana Branch, located at 3680 Atlantic Avenue, at (562) 570-1042 to request a copy of the film.

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