A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)

Umberto D. is sometimes grouped with Shoeshine (Vittorio De Sica, 1946) and Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948) as the completing element in a trilogy about the underclass in postwar Rome. Shoeshine could be said to be a film about youth, Bicycle Thieves about middle age, and Umberto D. about old age. All three were directed by De Sica from screenplays by Cesare Zavattini that earned the writer Oscar nominations. Although Umberto D. is unquestionably a great film, it also seems to me the weakest of the three, largely because De Sica and Zavattini can't fully avoid the trap of sentimentality in telling a story about an old man and his dog. Umberto D. also relies too heavily on its score by Alessandro Cicognini to tug on our heartstrings. These flaws are mostly redeemed by the great sincerity of the performances, particularly by Carlo Battisti as Umberto, but also by Maria Pia Casilio as the pregnant housemaid, and Lina Gennari as Umberto's greedy landlady. Battisti, a linguistics professor who never acted before or after this film, is the perfect embodiment of the crusty Umberto Domenico Ferrari, a retired civil servant living on a pension that's inadequate to his needs. We're told that he has "debts," which include back rent to the landlady. He has no family except his dog, a small terrier called Flike, whom he dotes on, and no friends except for the housemaid, whose plight, since she's pregnant by one of two soldiers who have no intention of marrying her, is not much better than his. The film is most alive when it follows these characters on their daily rounds: the maid getting up in the morning and starting her daily chores, which include a continuing battle against the ants that infect the flat, and Umberto walking Flike, encountering old friends who carefully avoid noticing his plight or helping him out of it. He's too proud to beg and unwilling to go into a shelter because he would have to abandon Flike. In the end, he is forced out of the flat by the landlady, and wanders into a park where he tries to give Flike away to a little girl who has played with him there before. Her nursemaid, however, refuses to consider it -- dogs are dirty, she says. In a desperate moment, he picks up Flike, ready to stand in front of an oncoming train and die with him on the railroad tracks, but the dog panics, squirms out of his arms, and runs away. The film concludes with Umberto, having regained Flike's confidence, playing with the dog, their future still uncertain. The inconclusiveness of the final scene helps reduce the sentimentality that has flooded the sequence and focus our attention on Umberto's plight, rather than gratify our desire for closure.