Umberto D, 1951. Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Neorealist Case study : Umberto D, 1951. Directed by Vittorio de Sica
Vittorio de Sica
Carlo Battista who takes the lead role as the pensioner in Umberto D. The use of Battista fitted the neorealist ethic of using non-professional actors where possible. In his normal life he was a philosophy professor.
Umberto Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), is a pensioner living in Rome with his fox terrier Flick. As an ex-civil servant he finds the value of his tiny state pension being eroded by inflation as he desperately tries to manage to pay the rent on his one room with shared facilities.
The landlady is intent on getting rid of him as she is an aspiring petit-bourgeois who is consorting with a local cinema owner. Interestingly the cinema as an institution is worked into the film in a form of quiet critique of the Hollywood domination of Italian cinema. Hollywood is selling dreams of stars, set against the increasing levels of poverty amongst those least able to defend themselves. By comparison Italian cinema is struggling to represent things as they really are for large proportions of the population.
Umberto attempts to raise money to keep his room by selling his prized possessions. Unlike some pensioners he is initially unwilling to start begging on the streets which would symbolise the destruction of his dignity. Eventually when this is the only possibility left to him he manages it extremely badly. As the film progresses thoughts of suicide gradually take over. The only thing which is stopping him is the problem of Flick the dog. Before he can consider suicide he must therefore find Flick a good home.
What is especially unusual about the way Umberto D is filmed is the way in which the spectator is distanced from Umberto. He has an air of self obsession which makes it hard to immediately sympathise with him as a character. Although the maid Maria has serious problems of her own he is generally unaware of these problems because he is so bound up in his own. Arguably this distancing has the effect of enabling the audience to read the film as something which is a structural problem in Italian society, not just a tale of an unfortunate individual. It is also a tale about the increasing lack of communication between people in Italian society.
The maid Maria (Maria pia Casilio)
Changing Cultural Policy
Coming in the early 1950s when a Christian Democratic government had managed to push the more left-wing elements of society into opposition since 1948, de Sica is effectively cinematically marking the end of the social solidarity of the immediate post-war period which was also a key raison d’etre for the neorealist movement.
It is the expendibility of older people which the film seeks to emphasise in its opening shots as a protest march of pensioners is broken up by the police because they haven’t been given a license to protest. The film produced with de Sica’s own money was a box office disaster according to Bondanella (2001).The changing political scenario led to Giulio Andreotti the Undersecretary of Entertainment brought Italy into disrepute by bringing into the open problems of Italian society. Instead Andreotti proposed that Italian films should be embracing a more optimistic and constructive attitude promoting the best of Italy.
It is possible to read into Umberto D (de Sica 1952) a sense of the moment of neorealism coming to its end. Millicent Marcus suggests it is both a celebration of that moment and a lamentation of its death. There is a dialectic of generational compositions which in the opening film of neorealism - commonly accepted as Rome Open City - there is a parade of boys marching on Rome to reclaim the future. By comparison Umberto D opens with coverage of a march by pensioners trying to improve their plight for they have been left in poverty in post-war Italy. The film bears witness to the failure of social change to happen. Rather than being a society welded together around notions of social solidarity Umberto D can be read as being about a society at war with itself.
It is worth noting at this point Paul Ginsborg’s analysis of Italy which notes that the post fascist purification process Epurazione was largely a failure. The judiciary had remained largely untouched and even by 1960 62 out of 64 prefects (the government representatives in the provinces), had previously been fascist functionaries. The response of the authorities to the marchers seems to hark back to an authoritarianism based upon legalistic niceties rather than morals as the march is broken up because they didn’t ask permission to march.
Rather than solidarity the representation of old men marginalised to a soup kitchen - perhaps all tyrannised by an aspirant nouveau landlady in the same way as Umberto is - shows a lack of intra-generational solidarity between the old men when they are blamed for not getting a permit to march. In the meantime the nouveau landlady class has forgotten about the war like many of the cinema-going publics.
In some sense the film can be seen as a surrender by de Sica to the isolation of the human condition and the impossibility of true social solidarity. The public reception of the film itself was negative and the film made a loss. This in itself contributed to the difficulty of raising finance to fund further neorealist productions. However Marcus suggests that it wasn’t just external changes which contributed to the failure of the film in the box-office but the nature of the text itself.
Zavattini who wrote the script for Umberto D. Many see this film as his purest script within the neorealist tradition.
Umberto D can be seen as having moved further towards Zavattini’s purer versions of neorealism in which a film was to be as devoid as possible of dramatic superstructure. Instead it should aim to dignify human existence by idealising any given moment of a human being’s quotidian existence by showing how striking that moment actually is. De Sica set out to make a film that was uncompromising. With Zavattini once again collaborating with him on the script they deliberately chose a subject that would have little immediate audience appeal. In Umberto D the old man is represented as closed and hostile to the outside world in ways specifically designed not to gain sympathy from the audience.
The film nevertheless stitches together moments taken from the quotidian to give a shape to Umberto’s experience of reality. Added to this there is a clear chronicling of the events in Maria’s life as she ends up pregnant and deserted, alongside the landlady who has an imminent marriage as she aims to clamber up the social scales. The film however de-dramatises events such as Maria’s announcement of her pregnancy (imagine East Enders doing it like that!!).
The film also features a pair of middle-class lovers who get to use Umberto’s room for their adulterous sex. They are portrayed in an almost un-melodramatic way as Marcus humorously notes: ‘It is as if a scene from another film found its way by mistake into Umberto D, serving in its incongruity, as a foil for de Sica’s resolutely un-dramatic storytelling mode.’ (Marcus: 1986: p 105).
Not only does the ethic of solidarity begin to break down during the film but the stylistic mode of neorealism itself undergoes a change. The zoom down to the street indicating the subjective desire of Umberto at that moment to finish it all, the shot of the fierce bulldog at the kennels presenting a subjective perspective (perhaps for ‘flick’ the dog) on the rest home as a mirror image of the snapping landlady moves us away from the more neutral cinematic practices central to classic neorealism. Marcus extends this analysis noting that there are a number of different perspectives developed about Umberto during the course of the film. At times he appears in a humorous light at other times pathetic whilst receiving critical treatment at other times.
Umberto unsuccessfully attempts to beg using Flick to hold out his hat as a begging bowl.
Many of the shots combine with the mise-en-scene to interiorise the characters. The way Umberto is shot in his room is not done in a voyeuristic way. Instead the shot pulls the spectator into the mindset of the character. A similar process is taking place in Maria’s personal space in the kitchen. On one occasion she sees a cat wandering across roofs acting as a visual synecdoche for her own feelings of potential homelessness.
As a character Umberto is a self absorbed old man. At the kennels he has no sympathy for another dog owner who cannot afford to get his dog out and who knows the dog will be put down. Neither has Umberto any recognition that Maria has been abandoned. In the film poverty combines with pride resulting in that self absorption. Rather than helping to forge solidarity poverty is represented as dividing people. Marcus challenges what she saw as a consensus critical perspective that the film does offer hope in the end when Umberto plays with the dog, rather she likens it to a hysterical moment of forgetting the constraints of a grinding quotidian. She argues that the replacement of the human reconciliation between father and son at the end of Bicycle Thieves is negated by substituting with a dog who is precisely non human.
Marcus ends by suggesting that it is in the visual style of the film rather than its personal / political implications that a corrective is offered against the processes of atomisation and solitude within the modernising social order. Marcus also compares the didacticism of Rossellini’s screenplay for Rome: Open City with Umberto D. She argues that Umberto D must be viewed properly before any message can be deciphered. This is evidence that the neorealist moment of Rome: Open City is past. By comparison she suggests that Umberto D opens the door to the style about to be pioneered by Fellini and Antonioni and that narrative has been shifted to form as an agent of social change: ‘By making the form the new repository of neorealist meaning, de Sica and Zavattini put an end to the classical neorealism of content, and rendered possible instead Fellini’s, Antonioni’s and Visconti’s application of its stylistic precepts to subjects hitherto excluded from serious post-war cinematic treatment.