“I love humanity, I trust humanity, but humanity has a way of disillusioning me.” — Director Vittorio de Sica
Looks old and crumbly just like the title character, but give it ten minutes and you are drawn into its uncompromising, compassionate gaze. Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952, Italy) is as emotionally awakening and touching films you are ever likely to see. It has a persuasive black & white seediness to it, yet the camera is always upfront and direct. Carlo Battisti, in the title role, plays a retired civil servant with an insufficient pension and mounting debt. He dresses with dignity. But perhaps that hides the truth of his dire situation. How quickly this becomes the story of an old man who loses his home, and is booted out onto the streets with only his plucky dog Flike as his companion.
Hanging on the best he can, he scrounges up money. But nobody needs to buy his watch when there are a thousand other watches that can be bought. Umberto’s only friend is a young housekeeper named Maria (Maria Pia Casilio) who is pregnant and destined to be a single mother. She can listen to Umberto’s plans of rummaging up money with a caring heart but she cannot solve his problems. Umberto’s unsympathetic landlady, however, doesn’t really want Umberto to catch up with the back rent. The landlady wants him out so she can spike the cost of the rental. And if there is an ant infestation problem, she would prefer Umberto to be bothered by it.
Inevitably, he loses the place. With no other family or friends to turn to, Umberto has only homelessness ahead of him. But despite his age he has a tough survivalist mentality. He checks into a hospital for an interim, but needs back out to care for his dog Flike who is in other care. Following the hospital dismissal he learns that Flike has been taken by one of the city’s animal shelters with a termination policy. We hold our breath that Umberto can track Flike down in time. The subsequent dog pound scene is rife with tormenting suspense.
If that’s not enough, we reach the gaspingly suspenseful railroad finale with Umberto tucking himself in humbly, hoping his fate goes unnoticed. We have spent time with a man who never bemoaned the cruel social structure that caused his befallen circumstances. We saw him imitate a beggar on the street but couldn’t succumb to the embarrassment. Flike had more luck begging on their behalf.
De Sica was more famous for his previous world class tearjerker “The Bicycle Thief” (1948), which was a distinguishable beginning of the neorealist movement – no formula story, no studio, but a production that hinged on authentic street locations and naturalistic actors. I love that film, too, but I feel in my bones that “Umberto D.” is simply one of the twenty best films ever made. In regards to the casting, Battisti was a 70-year old university lecturer who had never been in a film before, and he is not only immaculate but transcendent of anything peddling for film awards.
Every time I’ve seen it in a theater setting women weep and men gulp in shame. But it goes home with you, to the home of your heart and unforgettably so.
89 Minutes. Unrated.
DRAMA / MATURE TEENS / MASTERPIECE VIEWING