Umberto D (1952)

D: Vittorio de Sica
S: Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari.

Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945) reawakened a sense of pride in Italians. It depicted them as dignified, moral people struggling in the face of Fascist domination and the widespread hardships of the latter days of the Second World War. The film proved not only that the Italian heart was still strong, but that its artists were capable of reflecting this in a unique manner.

The verismo style subsequently dominated the Italian cinema, emphasising often difficult to face realities over popular entertainment and urging social reform, frequently with a left-wing political bent. The huge international success of Bicycle Thieves (1948) affirmed that Italy was a cinematic power on a world scale, winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and leading to widespread imitation even in Hollywood.

By the time Umberto D was released in 1952, things had changed. Italy was gradually coming to grips with the logistical and infrastructural problems left by the war. Seven years of depressing, if realistic, portraits of their home had left many Italians with a desire for something more upbeat, leading to a return for favoured prewar genres such as melodrama, comedy and historical spectacle. Neorealism became merely a style. The original political and social dimension was old fashioned and uninteresting to contemporary audiences.

Film critics, while still complementary of these meaningful and powerful works of art, were becoming frustrated. New directors had begun to emerge (Antonioni, Fellini), who though still owing debts to what was, after all, a national institution, explored the new Italy in new ways.

Some of the older directors had also begun to fall out of favour, particularly Roberto Rossellini, whose romance with married actress Ingrid Bergman had brought both of their careers and international reputations to a virtual standstill, compounded by the spectacular failure of their film together Stromboli (1950).

Umberto D was the last great neorealist film. It was politely received at home, but the enthusiastic hyperbole which had greeted director Vittorio de Sica and writer Cesare Zavattini's previous collaborations (including Bicycle Thieves and Miracle in Milan (1951)) was notably absent.

Only French critic and theorist André Bazin hailed it "a great work." For Bazin, its detailed depiction of the realities of poverty, loneliness, and old age represented the cinema's capacity to provide a window to the world of human experience. For others it was a film without the immediacy of its predecessors, detailing social and economic difficulties, which while doubtlessly genuine, were now past the crisis levels of the post-war period and required a different set of attitudes to address.

The film is centred on a touching performance by former university lecturer Carlo Battisti as the retired civil servant whose pension barely covers the necessities of life, especially because of his wish to look after his small mongrel dog. When his social climbing landlady attempts to eject him, he is forced to struggle with the possibility of giving up his home, his dog, his dignity, and eventually his life.

Its unromantic portrayal of poverty and fidelity to the principles of neorealism make Umberto D a uniquely affecting film. Its depiction of the rituals of ordinary life and constant, pressing concern with the individual dignity of every human being in a society which has forgotten its communal spirit communicates the kind of political anger which had made Zavattini's writing so popular in the immediate post-war period.

Vittorio de Sica again plies his sense of rhythm and timing to the direction, allowing what seems like the most natural and observed of behaviours to build up to a powerful portrait of social conditions and basic human emotions. It even transforms the prosaic into the poetic, nowhere more notably than in the scene where young housemaid Maria Pia Casilio attends to her morning duties in silent contemplation of her own private world.

The last word on the film is best left to Bazin: "...the cinema has rarely gone such a long way toward making us aware of what it is to be a man. (And also, for that matter, of what it is to be a dog.)"

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.