"It must never be reality!"—De Sica on neorealism
Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) may call himself "a good-for-nothing old man," but he demands no pity. Only a moment of your attention. He lives in a rundown flat for which he owes too much in rent. His landlady (Lina Gennari) wants to evict him so she has more room for her friends to party. The housemaid (Maria Pia Casilio) sympathizes, but she has her own problems to deal with. He has no family and few friends. His health is failing, and his pension is inadequate. He does not have the courage to beg or kill himself. Only his dog Flike remains by his side.
All he wants is a moment of your attention. And perhaps a few lire to help cover the rent, if you can spare it.
In his brief essay included on Criterion's DVD release of Umberto D, Carlo Battisti seems puzzled. Years after his role as the downtrodden pensioner, people still approach him on the street offering sympathy. But Battisti is not Umberto. He is an accomplished professor of linguistics. Umberto was only a role he played in a movie. He snaps back at his fans, frustrated at their confusion. Nonetheless, he finds his identity slipping. And he likes it.
Jump a few pages of screen text, past assistant director Luisa Alessandri's shaggy-dog story about Flike, and you will find Umberto Eco's little essay about how his own identity was shaped by watching De Sica's film in his youth. But even in his awareness of its power over him, Eco must also acknowledge that the film was a failure with the audience at large in his home country, perhaps because it hit too close to home for so many. "Umberto D seems to me to be a film straddling two worlds," Eco writes, "two seasons of our cinema."
What is this power that Umberto D has, to be both an inspiration and a burden? Why is this apparently simple tale, stark in both manner and tone, such a centerpiece of European cinema?
The answer can be encapsulated in a single word: neorealism.
Few subjects in the history of film generate as much misunderstanding as neorealism. No two texts on film theory or history define it the same. Perhaps it is safer to outline some general commonalities of neorealist films than to pin down this elusive genre in an authoritative fashion.
Some see neorealism as a reaction to Italy's defeat in World War II. Most of its strongest proponents—De Sica, Rossellini, Visconti—began their careers working within the fascist aesthetic, with its focus on the relationship between the ordinary working man and the land. But in the post-war era, land no longer had the same value: capitalism had one. Now the hero of the neorealist film must be concerned about possessions, the restraints of economics. Or at least this is the case in the films of Vittorio De Sica. In Shoeshine, two boys, displaced by the war's aftermath and obligated to shine the shoes of American soldiers for money, are caught with stolen goods and sent to a reformatory. In The Bicycle Thief, father and son search for a stolen bicycle—and end up stealing someone else's bicycle out of desperation.
Others see neorealism as a rejection of Hollywood aesthetics. Eschewing the stagebound Hollywood melodrama, neorealist directors moved into the streets, shooting on location (which began the strange Italian filmmaking habit of postsynching dialogue back in the studio). They opened up the camera's field of vision, allowing for more movement and fewer edits. Non-professional actors provided what neorealist directors hoped would be a more "authentic" feel.
As Gilles Deleuze points out in the second volume of Cinema, neorealism is not about external technique, but visual structure. He suspects that neorealism "is this build-up of purely optical situations" (2), in which characters move as if subject to "a certain motor helplessness" (3). In traditional realism, characters are driven by intent: they choose to take actions, and thus the appearance of action follows from agency. In neorealism, agency is severed from action. Characters are trapped by circumstances, forced to take actions as if operating along a predetermined path. In Shoeshine, the two boys assert to a fortune-teller that "we have futures too," only to find themselves shuttered away in prison. In De Sica's final film, The Garden of Finzi-Continis, we know the family is doomed to fall from their paradise into the depths of the Holocaust, even if, as one character remarks, "they don't even seem Jewish."
Nothing much happens in Umberto D. This is a film about stasis, stagnation, entropy. Choices are always proscribed. It might seem that such a film would be boring. We watch Umberto enter his flat, open a window, puff up a pillow, open another window, brush off his clothes—all in real time. The camera holds onto each interminable moment as Umberto's life drags on. Changes seem to happen only to other people. Maria, the pretty housemaid, has two boyfriends, one of whom she is certain made her pregnant. The landlady has a fiancé and a revolving cluster of rowdy friends. But Umberto only has his dog.
Umberto gathers together rent money, frets over his health. There are moments of humor found in odd places: Umberto's battles with his imperious landlady, the time when he tries to convince befuddled medical orderlies that he must be rushed to the hospital before he dies. Sometimes, the bleak "queen-for-a-day" litany of troubles almost borders on the absurd. But what anchors our sympathy for Umberto is a straightforward and unadorned performance by Carlo Battisti. Battisti never milks the pathos from a scene but always plays simply as if he is in the moment. This natural approach, part of De Sica's attempt to desaturate the melodrama from the film, is integral to Umberto D's success. Anything more or less from Battisti would topple the film into sickening melodrama.
Cesare Zavattini's script is loosely structured: a series of events that do not clearly connect in a traditionally causal fashion, yet their accretion builds a complete picture of Umberto's life. We see him at home, enduring his landlady's scornful attempts to drive him away. We see him trying to settle in at the hospital in a ploy to buy time. We see him roam the street in search of his missing dog. Each location is linked to a larger whole by two things: Umberto's constant quest to get someone to listen to him (and give him a little money to settle his debts) and Maria's attempts to get any of her boyfriends to take responsibility for her pregnancy. Deleuze is correct: Umberto D coasts on visual construction, rather than the active momentum of a traditional plot. We are familiar with the temporal order of the film only by tracking Maria's progress. Umberto never seems to progress at all (even the end is thoroughly ambiguous as to where he will go next).
Consider how images in the film shape our sense of its structure. In one sequence, Umberto approaches Maria moments after she has told her disinterested soldier boyfriend that she is having his baby. The soldier struts off, and Maria proves less than attentive to Umberto's complaints. Fractured communication is followed by fractured communication. As Umberto walks away, we see another soldier, who looks a bit like Maria's boyfriend from a few minutes ago, walk forward and past the frame. Maria is turned away and does not see him—another missed opportunity. The film is full of severed connections. Conversations about important matters are shunted into small talk. Requests for help are ignored.
Even death in the film seems like just another missed opportunity. Umberto's timely arrival at the dog pound saves Flike from the officials who are more than willing to carry out extermination. And Umberto's attempts at suicide end up fizzling out. Life goes on, as the cliché states, but only because human action seems incapable of changing its momentum.
Vittorio De Sica's films never lapse into cynicism, in spite of their bleak perspective. Instead, De Sica risks slipping into sentimentalism as he tries to create sympathy for his characters. It happens only in small doses, but it is certainly there. In the case of Umberto D, no matter how tragic Umberto's plight gets through the course of the film, he always has his loyal and loving dog. You simply cannot tell a story about an old man and his dog—see, right there you had to resist the urge to go "awww," as a tear welled up in your eye. But Flike is as much a burden as a joy in Umberto's life, and De Sica manages to avoid evoking false sympathy from what is usually a cliché sentimental device by keeping an even tone throughout.
Umberto D appears as a remarkable accomplishment today, a film that evokes our sympathy for its protagonist without sentimentality. Its directness in portraying the plight of those left behind by Italy's post-war success takes on a documentary quality at times. De Sica's notes on the film on the DVD insert even compare his approach to "the true, poetic, and limpid style of the great [documentarian] Robert Flaherty."
But such clarity was a little too much for Italian audiences in 1952: Umberto D was a tremendous flop in Europe. However, De Sica's films drew the attention of powerhouse film critic Andre Bazin and the Cahirs du Cinema crowd, many of whom (Truffaut, Godard) would expand on neorealism's themes and technical strategies. In a sense, it was this next generation that drove neorealism into repose, making it a relic of a particular time and place. Now handheld cameras and location shoots, unprofessional actors and focus on the middle and lower classes, have become the favorite techniques of both pretentious art cinema (Dogme 95) and so-called "reality" television.
But Umberto D endures. Restored in 1999, the film holds up well, apart from a bit of flicker in spots. The audio is clean and free of hiss. All this is to be expected from Criterion, who finally gives Umberto the attention he deserves. The most prominent supplement on Criterion's new release of Umberto D is a television documentary: "That's Life." This hour-long show from 2001 features various interview footage with De Sica, structured as a sort of "This Is Your Life," hosted by the deceased director himself. The real De Sica is not nearly as depressing a chap as his movies: he is bold and extroverted, like a dapper motivational speaker. A bit of a ham, De Sica was an actor himself in between his own film projects, and he is not shy in front of the camera. He gives a tour of his career, from commercial studio hack to political filmmaker. And of course, he only talks about the good parts. Although De Sica's final film was in color, and presumably some of this interview footage originally was as well, the entire program is shown in black and white for consistency. De Sica is a lively host, and this program is an amusing and informative way to learn about the highlights of his film career.
Criterion also includes a brand new 12-minute interview with Maria Pia Casilio, who was only 15 when De Sica cast her in the role that began her long acting career. We learn that De Sica and Zavattini constantly revised the script during filming, which meant poor Carlo Battisti could never remember his lines. The essays I noted at the beginning of this review (along with the characteristically fine essays on the insert) round out the supplements. The only thing Criterion is missing here is some clear discussion (if this is even possible) on neorealism for newcomers to De Sica's work.
Neorealism, as with other "revolutionary" art moments like impressionism or surrealism, innovated itself right into irrelevancy. Its techniques were co-opted into mainstream, popular filmmaking, its stepchildren (Antonioni, the New Wave directors) moved on to more radical styles, and the genre became a tool by which increasingly mediocre filmmakers could pad out their budgets by claiming their "slice of life" movies were socially relevant. But Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D still works, because it balances despair, social immediacy, and a dry humor that makes us root for Umberto even to the end. Umberto's trials are never irrelevant, because we never lose sight of the delicate reality at the center of his almost theatrically tragic life. In paying such careful attention to this poor old loser, Criterion has once again backed a winner in Umberto D.
The court orders an increase in Umberto Ferrari's government pension, to be carried out retroactively. Criterion is again commended for its advocacy and attention to this important film. Court is adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• "That's Life: Vittorio De Sica" Documentary
Review content copyright © 2003 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.