The opening scene of Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece Umberto D. is of a bustling city street with commuters and pedestrians going about their daily business, before a group of elderly protesters is seen marching down the main road; angrily waving placards and chanting slogans in full voice.
The protesters are a group of Italy’s pensioners disgusted at the way their government is treating them by reducing state payouts at a time of greatest need, effectively forcing many of them into poverty. The short shrift this ‘grey brigade’ is given by the police, as they bellow orders for the protestors to disperse while forcibly shunting them along using vehicles, sets the grim tone for a film which has as much to say about social injustice in 2022 as it did back in 1952.
The simple but highly effective story revolves around Umberto (Carlo Battisti), a retired civil servant who is threatened with eviction for failing to pay his rent. Facing the indifference of his heartless landlady (Lena Ginnari), and witnessing life’s securities unravel around him, Umberto resorts to all manner of schemes in the vain hope of staving off the inevitable; at first selling his valuables to part cover the rent and then faking an illness so that he can stay in the warmth and relative comfort of a local hospital.
In keeping with the neorealist style developed by De Sica and fellow contemporaries such as his screenwriting partner Cesare Zavattini, many of the actors are non-professionals, including Umberto and the young pregnant maid of the house, Maria (played by Maria-Pia Casilio), who is one of the few people in the film to show any real tenderness to the old man. The pair’s relationship though is forged through shared woes, as Maria faces abandonment by the unborn baby’s father while fully aware that she’ll be fired if her pregnancy is discovered.
For a time, Umberto stays resolute, certain that he and his faithful dog Flike will make it through somehow. His resilience however gradually gets chipped away, as the routes for any kind of salvation are blocked to an elderly man who is deemed to no longer have any value. With no family to care for him and no safety net for which a decent pension would provide, Umberto is forced onto the streets and the prospect of begging; the last rung down on a teetering ladder of diminished self-respect.
Umberto’s awkward encounters with ex-colleagues while trying to keep up appearances speak volumes about the loss of status and with it the approval of others. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Umberto prepares himself to beg outside Rome’s iconic Pantheon, practising the act of holding his hand out but quickly turns it over as if to check for rain when someone approaches. He next uses Flike to stand on his haunches with a hat in his mouth, but again hastily makes excuses when a friend of his appears and recognises the dog. It’s to De Sica’s credit that he was able to infuse a fairly bleak film with these lighter moments, as the bitter pill of social commentary would have been a lot harder for global audiences to swallow without them.
Once evicted, Umberto faces the very real prospect of homelessness, and it’s the latter scenes of the film that hit the hardest, as the old man must make some tough decisions which lead to and ending that is both heartbreaking and uplifting all at once.
De Sica himself said that while his earlier film The Bicycle Thieves concerned the lack of solidarity which was a phenomenon of the early postwar period in Italy, Umberto D. was about people’s inability to communicate. While this may be the case for Umberto and the various characters in the film who all struggle to connect, the film itself has been connecting with audiences for 60 years and will no doubt continue to do so for many years to come.
The DVD contains a 55 minute documentary made in 2001 that takes a behind the scenes look at De Sica’s filmic journey as both actor and director. There’s a gentle charm to the way De Sica holds court throughout the film, addressing us directly to proffer up nuggets of wisdom gleaned from a lengthy and mostly successful career. Much as it comes across as a slick PR exercise resembling ‘this is your life Mr De Sica’, there are some lovely interviews with regular collaborators Sofia Loren as well as awkwardly affecting clips of De Sica and writing partner Cesare Zavattini discussing their remarkable partnership.
Umberto D. is released on Criterion Blu-Ray August 15th, 2022