There’s an old Italian phrase my father learned from his father—and, no doubt, his from his—which, roughly translated, means: “It’s hell getting old.” That could easily be the subtitle of Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 masterpiece Umberto D., newly-released on Blu-ray by Criterion.
The quite simple story concerns an old man, Umberto Domenico Ferrari, who, with the companionship of his small dog, struggles to keep his head above the rising glacier of ageism and mortality. His meager pension is below adequate, his landlady is a small-time Madame who wants him out, and his health is failing (though not as much as he pretends).
Italian neo-realism, as a film style, has had a wide influence, including on director Martin Scorsese. Its aura of unhindered “realism” is ripe for so-called gritty, authentic drama, though few directors, Scorsese included, have embraced fully or systematically the movement’s primary ingredients: the use of mostly non-professional actors in real locations with a minimum of stylistic intervention.
Umberto D. basically adheres to these conventions, but is, like other, or even all, films under the neo-realist rubric, more meticulously worked than generally believed. In other words, the conventions are merely the framework for all sorts of alterations. De Sica (again, like Scorsese) isn’t adverse to high stylization, such as compositions with canted angles or evocative visuals like nuns praying through steam.
The use of non- and/or unpolished actors is a more fraught element, requiring a kind of soul-reading insight and foresight. Who knows whether a non-actor will be able to act, or convey, or portray once the camera rolls? French director Robert Bresson successfully handpicked his “models” (his term for those in films most other people call “actors”) from general society. De Sica had a similarly unerring casting sense.
Non-actor Carlo Battisti, a linguistics professor unencumbered by any acting vanity, still no doubt drew, like a Method actor, on his experience as a man who has lived 70-plus years on the planet to convey through authentic demeanor his character’s history. Scenes of Umberto forced into reluctant panhandling contain gestures of essentially actorly “business” that are more touching for displaying actual (though not literal) experience over virtual affectation. And more crucially, Battisti has the gaze of an old man, eyes brewing with a long-active consciousness that is at once desperate, frightened, angered and resigned.
My girlfriend calls older films (that is, anything pre-, say, 1960) Grandpa Movies, and Umberto D. is perhaps the Granddaddy of all Grandpa Movies. Old age, world-weariness, physical depletion and impending death imprint virtually every frame of the film. At one point, the financially-strapped Umberto tries to sell a watch to an old acquaintance, intoning, “Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…” until they both grow uncomfortably aware of time’s precious passing. Another acquaintance inquires about a colleague only to hear that the man has died.
I say “acquaintances” because Umberto’s only real friend is his dog, Flike. This dog has sometimes been labeled a sentimental tactic, but is really the hinge, or totem (some translations read Flike as “Flag”) of the old man’s tenuous claim on this animal world. To lose Flike is to lose footing. The film’s most heartwrenching sequences involve Umberto losing the dog or the dog ignoring him. What is more forlorn than an old man near-futilely calling after a lost dog?
Though we have little knowledge of the man’s past relationships, marital or otherwise, his clutching, desperate investment in Flike—an animal indifferent to social status and accepting of almost all behavior, though this loyalty is challenged in the film’s penultimate scene—and his sense of terror anytime Flike is unaccounted for, provide psychological lineament to Umberto’s somewhat pathetic personality. Dog-owners (and, I presume, parents; I only have a dog) will sympathize.
All this lost mortality is contrasted not only with the “agelessness” of Flike, but the youthfulness of a housemaid. Maria (Maria Pia Casilio, another non-actor with perfect thespian pitch) has big, guileless eyes and a pudginess that is slightly prepubescent, though she’s pregnant by one of two soldiers. An embodiment of beauty and bloom—another testament to De Sica’s instinctive casting—Maria is continually set at dialectical odds with the aged Umberto.
Like the non-professional genuineness of the older man, the young woman plays truly living scenes, as when she burns ants off the walls with a rolled-newspaper-torch lit on the stovetop. And the Beginning implied by her pregnancy is, in truth, just as sorrowful as Umberto’s End. A noted scene involves Maria preparing the morning breakfast, gesture by simple gesture—filling a pot with water, pushing a door closed with her bare foot, an apparently mindless routine culminating with her shedding a few silent tears. This combination, or balance, or negative capability of portraying simultaneously delicacy and doom inhabits the whole of the film.
In his excellent booklet essay, “Seeing Clearly Through Tears: On The Smart Sentiment pf Umberto D.” ,film critic Stuart Klawans notes the protests of the film by Italian critics and politicians sensitive to post-war impressions abroad and apparently uncomfortable being portrayed as insensitive to their seniors. For example, when a small band of striking pensioners, as frightened as they are outraged, are broken apart by authorities, and the men scatter like pigeons, it has an undeniable resonance of fascist roundups.
And there are more explicit vestigial reminders, as well: Umberto, searching for the lost Flike, is herded through a dog-pound with other dog-owners, where he witnesses a mass euthanization. Simple metaphor rendered as grim tautology: heedlessly discarded figures, the aged and the unclaimed, dispersed like smoke and ash on the wind.
Yet in the end, any political/social message is subservient to the personal expression: We are all victims of mortality. Klawans cops to watching the film “through tears.” I’ll go further, and admit to viewing it through sobs. The film is exceedingly sad—not depressing, mind you, but sad—as when, on Umberto’s impending eviction, the pregnant maid says with grim yet clueless irony, “Wherever you go, you’ll be happier than you are here.” Or something that really hit home: Umberto having to sell his beloved books for less than they’re worth!
Amending all this sorrow is a hopeful collection of extras: a nearly hour-long documentary about De Sica, and interviews and writings by actors, (non)actors and writers, including Luisa Alessandri, Umberto Eco and De Sica