in Criterion Month

Umberto D. (1952)

What would you do if you lost everything? Imagine being old too, ill with tonsillitis, and aimlessly roaming the streets of post war Italy. Not much fun, huh? In the immortal words of Nas “…life’s a bitch and then you die” which could easily be the title of this 1952 neorealism classic from Vittorio de Sica. It’s like playing the Game of LIFE and landing on every bad space and drawing every wrong card. At that point you have to ask yourself, is life even worth living?

Umberto D. Ferrari (Carlo Batistti) is a retired government worker protesting with other elderly men for a raise in their pensions. Right away we get a sense of Umberto’s principles when he criticizes his fellow protesters for failing to secure a permit. Umberto, at least at one point in his life, was a man of dignity. Now, buried in debt, Umberto scrapes by sneaking his small dog Flike into dining halls and trying to hawk his wristwatch to any shmuck within arm’s length.

Umberto’s home life isn’t any better. He constantly butts heads with his greedy landlady (Lina Gennadi). Unable to pay off his raised rent, Umberto resorts to selling everything he values to stay off the streets. He has no family he can stay with and his only friend, aside from his trusty pup, is a young maid (Maria-Pia Casillo) who also finds her life veering off course after an unexpected pregnancy.

Umberto spends time in the hospital after a bout of tonsillitis and returns to his building to find workers have torn a hole in his wall. This on account of the landlady desiring a bigger living room. If this wasn’t bad enough Flike goes missing. Umberto goes to the pound, scouring cages of dogs. Also, we see a pack of dogs who appear to be lured to some kind of… I don’t know how to put this “Murder Chamber”? This is not an easy film for lovers of animals or old people.

Weighing his options, Umberto at one point considers suicide. Though it’s not done in any kind of dramatic speech or letter of declaration. Rather it’s the old man’s simple train of reasoning. It’s true, a lot of difficult decisions we make in life are based on racking our brains for pros and cons, not rehearsing Shakespearian soliloquies.

Later, Umberto tries to abandon Flike under the assumption he would be happier living with any inner city family. But Flike is loyal. It doesn’t matter how many times Umberto tries to leave him. Flike always comes back. Flike is a real heart melter. Don’t believe me? Look at the pic below. That’s quality dog acting right there.

Earlier, I mentioned the word “Neorealism” which is a label for post-war Italian films about everyday life starring everyday people i.e “non-actors”. This includes films like Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) Fellini’s Nights of Cabria (1957) and notably the films of Vittorio De Sica; Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948) and today’s film in question. Films built on simple human needs and struggles. Characters who feel like they’ve lived a life. Take Umberto D’s star Carlo Battisti, the man was a noted linguist (not an actor) but carried with him years of experience and a quiet dignity you’d be hard pressed to find in most actors. The film is beautiful with its wide shots of stark black and white buildings and crowds of people, but nothing is more beautiful than the subtle nuances in Battisti’s expressions.

The movie doesn’t end with a big shift or epiphany. If you can even call it an ending. Like life, Umberto D. is more a bunch of shit that happens and then it’s over. Again, I ask if life is even worth living for poor Umberto? I think so. If not for his unbreakable bond with his best friend than for his spirit to survive. You can always work towards a better tomorrow if you remain vigilant. Maybe it’s not the happiest ending but there is hope. Because if we don’t have hope what else do we have?

*crying forever.