A perfect introduction to the beauty and potency of Italian neorealism would be a double feature from acclaimed director Vittorio De Sica. His movies “The Bicycle Thief” and this one, “Umberto D.” showcases everything that led the movement to be called “The Golden Age of Italian Cinema”.
Neorealism dealt honestly with Italy’s moral and economic post-World War 2 difficulties. Film’s focused on the hardships facing the working class and explored the deep effects of poverty and injustice. They often explored the everyday suffering and survival of those living under economic stress. De Sica was a pillar of the movement which spanned a ten year period although its influence could be see in movies well past its time.
“Umberto D.” is a reference to the film’s main character, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti). He’s an elderly man whose only source of income is a small state pension. As we watch we can glean many things about Umberto. He once had a respectable career and made a good living. We see remnants of that life in his tattered suit and topcoat. He took pride in always paying his bills. This is something we see clearly as he struggles to avoid eviction by his mean, condescending landlady (Lina Ginnari).
Umberto’s only family is his loyal dog Flike who he describes as “a mutt with intelligent eyes. The two have a loving relationship and both would be lost without the other. Umberto treats Flike like he would his own child sometimes even skipping a meal so that Flike can eat. To go a bit deeper, we also get the sense that their relationship is what keeps Umberto going. It’s especially evident in one sequence where he loses Flike. His desperation to find his dog is a reflection of his love but also of his need.
One of the many things De Sica does well is capture Umberto’s basic struggle to get by. He does so without manufacturing stakes or relying on heavy doses of melodrama. As the story moves forward De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini portray a proud man’s battle to maintain some semblance of his dignity. Umberto’s circumstances steadily chisel away at his optimism and self-respect. Even his physical appearance bears the marks of a burdened soul.
Not only does the story strip away any hint of artifice, but the characters do as well. As was customary for Neorealism, “Umberto D.” doesn’t feature big stars or accomplished actors. Big actors or big performances ran the risk of drawing attention to themselves. The idea was to keep every bit of the focus on the story being told. Therefore Battisti was cast to play Umberto. It would be his first and only acting role. Ginnari was also relatively unknown as was first time actress Maria-Pia Casilio who plays a naïve young housekeeper.
The story of “Umberto D.” is very simple in scope but powerful in message. Aside from a slow patch or two, it carefully explores a harsh reality that most certainly spoke to the people of its time. More impressive is its ability to still feel strikingly relevant. The heartbreaking story of Umberto and Flike may have originated 64 years ago, but its message doesn’t feel out of our current reach. That’s a testament to its truth and authenticity.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS