Umberto D.

Lawrence Russell

Umberto D. (1952) dir. Vittorio de Sica writ. Zavattini and Sica cine. G.R. Aldo star. Carlo Battisti (Umberto) Maria Pia Castilio (the maid) Lina Gennari (the landlady)

This is a very sad film, falsely criticized for its sentimentality by the political status quo of the time in Italy. The story is about a retired civil servant Umberto D. Ferrari and his dog Flick who are evicted from their Roman pension by a self-absorbed landlady because he has fallen behind with his rent. Forced into the streets, the elderly pensioner feigns illness in order to live rent-free in hospital, tries street begging but lacks the resolve, contemplates -- even tries -- suicide, but his beloved dog distracts him from the explosive passage of the express train.

This powerful narrative in the classic social realist style has a universal application regardless of period or cultural setting. The loneliness of the aged and their marginalization in society is still a problem in affluent industrial states, regardless of social welfare and political paternalism. Perhaps it's a mechanism of Nature, although Sica and Zavattini certainly seem to place the blame for Umberto's plight on the Italian government.

The opening shot of a tolling bell and the marching pensioners to a spontaneous demonstration is certainly a political act, as is their quick route and dispersion by the army. There's a sad comedy in this opening scene which in turn establishes the melancholy pattern for the rest of the film. Many scenes are coolly ironic, while others are outright farcical.

When he tries to use the Catholic hospital as a free boarding house, he ingratiates himself with the supervising nun by asking for a rosary (on the advice of the experienced hustler in the next bed) and is allowed to stay despite the doctors' recognition that he's faking it. When he tries begging, he puts his cap in Flick's mouth, then conceals himself behind a pillar and watches as the dog sits obediently on the sidewalk waiting for the largesse of the passing citizens.

But like the clowns at the circus, nothing Umberto does turns out right. He returns to his room, finds the landlady has rented it by the hour to illicit lovers; he returns to his room, finds the landlady has gutted it for a major renovation. He abandons his dog, later saves it from the gas chamber; he abandons his dog, but the dog quickly finds him in the street.

The routine of abandonment and reconciliation is a continual motif within the film. His only friend, the pretty maid Maria, is abandoned by her lover(s) (is it the man from Naples or is it the man from Florence?). Like Umberto, she is also a victim of the times and society's attitudes. Pregnant, facing an uncertain future, her condition is symbolic of the State's indifference to the well-being of the weak. Umberto's parting words to her are, "Give up the man from Florence." One gets the feeling that there is a veiled ellipsis in this reference.

There are a number of notable scenes, including the Animal Pound when Umberto recovers Flick and saves the hapless mongrel from certain death, or there is the stunning attempted suicide at the climax. In a final attempt at solving his dilemma, Umberto tries to give away Flick (pronounced "fly-k") to a little girl who is playing in the park but her young, vital parents intervene, say no. Umberto tries to walk away, crosses a bridge... but Flick follows, finds him by the tracks, jumps into his arms. The train whistle howls, the express blows past as man and dog are bisected in shadow and light, as if framed in transition between this world and the next.

It's a brilliantly conceived and executed piece of film, one of the greatest sequences ever, anywhere.

The dog escapes and Umberto totters back over the footbridge into the park where he finds Flick hiding behind a tree, suspicious of his master's intentions. But Umberto lures the dog out with a familiar routine and the film ends with the man and his dog gamboling into the distance as if happily reconciled to each other and their very uncertain fate.

It's largely a silent film in real time with action and few words. The soundtrack is mostly ambient -- street traffic, ambiguous industry, and beautifully -- in Umberto's lodgings -- the operatic soiree the landlady conducts in her chambers. It's a monochromatic world of shadow and half-light, often evening and dawn locales rendered in the black and white film stock typical of the neo-realist period.

Despite the strict naturalism of the action, there are some interesting images with metaphoric or ironic possibilities: the cat on the skylight above the maid's bed, Umberto's gold watch, the "dog hotel", the express train, etc. The juxtapositions of humans and buildings is continually ironic in terms of past, present and future. Even the dialogue has occasional sub-text: "Take him (Umberto) to see yesterday's dogs," says the Pound official to a worker.

What is there to criticize about this film? Nothing.

© LR 1/92


Fcourt reviews | e-mail LR

Film Court | copyright 1999 | Lawrence Russell