Umberto D – a Criterion Classic about Economic Woes, Societal Pathology, and Unconditional Love

Sep 08, 2010 by Tom Jones

At the time of Umberto D’s release, not only was it a commercial failure overseas, it was also savagely attacked in Italy, by its then postwar Italian government of the time, as evidenced from the remark of Giulio Andreotti, who was then a vice-minister in the De Gasperi cabinet, whose famous quip about Neo-realist movies remains famous to this day–”dirty laundry that shouldn’t be washed and hung to dry in the open.”

Italian Neo-Realism began shortly after the end of the World War II, in a time where the country was struck by poverty and a difficult economical and political time. The feelings of the era were reflected in the subject matter and style of the Italian Neo-Realist film makers. As a reaction to the social, political and economic situation of the time, Italian Neo Realist film makers wanted to be realistic and gritty in their representations. Italian Neo-Realist film makers often shot predominantly on location, which resulted in film making being low cost as well as adding to the sense of realism to the movie. They also often used real people instead of actors in their movies, again to add to the sense of realism. Key themes of the Italian Neo-Realist movement are plots about ordinary poor neighborhoods and are often set in the countryside. Italian Neo-Realists wanted to portray ordinary lives in realistic settings and plots. Source:

As if hiding reality is something new to current regimes in China, Russia, and other places, notwithstanding.

Ironically, it garnered an Academy Award and a New York Film Critic’s awards here after its release. As most arts follow a predecessor, as in making it new, this was the case with Neo-realism which led to the development of France’s New Wave of Cinema with its Cinema Verite form of camera and film point of view; as well as the plot and story being more realistic in terms of stylistic and individualistic storytelling.

Directed by Academy Award winning director Vittorio De Sica, Umberto D,’s (Umberto is played by Carlo Battisti, a university professor De Sica chose to be in his movie after a chance meeting on the streets of Rome.) plot is simple enough.

The film opens with a street demonstration at city hall. A group of retirees are staging a protest about their insufficient pensions and have gathered to demand an increase, but the protest was easily dispersed because they had no permit to protest.

Sounds eerily current, if not post-Neo realistic as our middle class here, is being pummeled into new lows and desperation.

As is the case with most seniors around the world, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is a retired civil servant living on a fixed income. His room is diminutive as is what he owns. Umberto is an elderly pensioner, faced with the prospect of his pension being reduced along with the rest of both his fellow workers as well as Italy’s economic depression following the war.

The rent for his room alone is equal to half his monthly pension and, even skipping meals or taking free meals now and then at a shelter, he is unable to get by. His only non-essential expense is his little dog, named Flike–but Flike is more than his best friend, Flike is his metaphor for hope and his ability to relate to the world.

Umberto has fallen behind in his rent and the unsympathetic landlady ,Antonia (Lina Gennari), would really prefer to evict him for non-payment then be paid, because she could rent out the room for twice what he pays under current rates. She has served notice to him that he will be thrown out at the end of the month. Umberto understands that any other available room in the city would cost twice what he now pays. If he is evicted, he will be homeless; for all intents and purposes his life would then mean nothing and he will be doomed.

Umberto struggles to avoid this final descent from grinding poverty into shame and humiliation. He returns to his room on one occasion to find it “in use” by a prostitute and her customer.

The landlady rents out both his room and the living room to such couples for additional income. Umberto must wait it out in the ant-infested kitchen in the house while the landlady leads a life of upward mobility. There, he at least has the companionship of his only human friend in the world, the landlady’s housekeeper, Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio). Maria is just age fifteen but confides in Umberto that she is three months pregnant.

Although sweet she’s also confused. The father of her pregnant child, is either a tall soldier from Florence or a short one from Naples. It matters little since neither intends to assume responsibility for her or the child.

He’s behind on his rent, while being terrorized by his landlady who rents out his room during the day as a brothel. As she demands from him 15,000 lire on a “take it or leave it” basis; Umberto knows that he cannot meet his obligation.

In the house, he has befriended the maid, but her own situation is just as perilous–she’s pregnant from either of 2 men, neither whom will commit to being the father, or to commit to her.

Umberto’s relation to the world and surroundings is stark, impersonal, and increasingly depressing. His only solace, and friendship, is with his dog–Flike.

He loves Flike unconditionally, and vice verse. His acquaintances and friends have no intent, desire, or ability to want to assist him and he knows that he’s faced with a grim future as he sells what little earthly possessions he has–a watch, and some books.

The stages by which Umberto arrives at the idea of suicide and then is drawn away from it are among the best in the film. His dog is central to the action–both because he will not abandon it by his own death, and because the dog refuses to leave his side.

It is the fact of the dog’s love that saves him, because he cannot ignore it. Umberto tries to leave Flike as he hides under a bridge, but the dog finds him, and again we’re reminded of the duality of his impoverished life; yet his genteel way of dealing with it.

Although much has been written about Umberto D because its not too sentimental, or it prevents us to feel sorry for the protagonist, the film is about the unconditional love between Umberto and Flike. There’s nothing wrong with empathy or sympathy according to this critic’s opinion.

Universally, the human condition forces most people to condition their approval toward their fellow man, based on class and income; and Flike’s love for Umberto, and Umberto’s love in return is as it should be.

We’re who we are, and if that’s not good enough, then we’ll hold our heads high and not give in to despair nor resign to failure.

And this is the ultimate success and brilliance of Umberto D.

Umberto D is a remastered remarkable work of filmmaking, and is part of the world famous Criterion Movie Collection.

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