How to approach an established classic like Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 Umberto D, newly released on Blu-Ray, when writing from a comfortable 21st century perspective? Do you put a spin on it by declaring all its pointed observations of city life and government apathy as relevant as ever? Do you comment on how well the performances have held up over time despite their neo-realist trappings? Or do you bring up the fact that it might just contain the greatest ever performance by a dog, and maybe even an animal period, in cinema history? The truth is, Umberto D has been discussed to death for the last 60 years but when watching it today, it still contains a purity and resonance that has not tended to materialise very often since, leading us to constantly revisit it as something beyond simple understanding and contemplation.
Held in high regard as a film that both epitomised and signalled the end of the Italian neo-realist movement, De Sica, just like with his more recognised film The Bicycle Thieves, once again hones in on a single character and slowly lets the world unfold around him, simultaneously blossoming and decaying in front of our very eyes. His subject this time is the titular Umberto D. Ferrari, a disgruntled and lonely old man who we meet on the verge of panic as he protests in favour of a rise in Rome’s pathetic pension scheme. Knowing he has little time before he can no longer afford rent, which will lead to his eviction, Umberto goes on the hunt for financial stability, a miserable task, whilst finding solace in his only two friends; Maria, the maid who works in his building, and Flike, his raggedy, adorable and fiercely loyal mutt. Honestly, the connection between a man and his dog here has never been so tender or so fragile, it is almost refreshing to see a relationship that has nothing to do with social barriers or expectations, so much so that it becomes transcendent.
There is no doubt about it that Umberto D is a sentimental film. It sets out to tug on the heartstrings and fill the audience with an overflowing, uncontainable empathy towards Umberto, Flike and, at many points, Maria as well. As a trio of downtrodden lives in a sprawling urban environment, they represent the ultimate failings of society, our inability to take the focus off ourselves and put a spotlight on those who are trapped between the law and social expectations. De Sica does not seem above emotional manipulation but the way in which he pulls it off is astounding. Through a series of carefully choreographed vignettes, some completely silent and others full to the brim with bountiful, rich Roman dialogue, he never lets us see the strings that are being pulled to draw us closer to the hugely affecting final moments of the film. Such is the power of neo-realism.
The character of Umberto is played with such simplicity and weariness by non-actor Carlo Battisti that you begin to see in his face the faces of all the people you’ve passed by on the street and not even thought twice about. However, besides drawing otherworldly performances out of untrained citizens of the state, one of De Sica’s biggest strengths as a director is his propensity for world building, allowing his camera to linger and breathe as well as simply capture and collect. We get a real sense that Umberto is not the only one with problems in this great city as the frame often lingers behind his journey, almost wondering whether it should veer off in a different direction before catching back up with the action.
All of this may sound as though the film is awash with heavy, misery-inducing scenarios that make you fall into a great and all consuming despair but that could not be further from the truth. There is humour and beauty found in the most dilapidated of buildings that the characters inhabit but nobody in the film engages the audience as much as Flike the dog, who finds himself in a series of dangerous situations that he always manages to escape from with style. De Sica is not here to lecture his audience on the misgivings of the Italian government because the kind of authenticity he cultivates means that he doesn’t have to, it comes to the fore naturally. When all is said and done, there are more spiritual machinations at work than the greedy politicians and corrupted landlords that we see all around us today and Umberto D is a film that aims for the heart and makes it soar rather than ache. That is why we still talk about it, right?
Umberto D is available to purchase now through Cult Films on DVD and Blu-ray at this link