By Jason A. Hill
Umberto D., Italy, 1952
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Umberto D., Vittorio De Sica’s tribute to his father, could be viewed as a farewell to Italian neorealism. The year was 1952. Reconstruction in Italy after WWII had been well on its way. The conditions from which directors and writers had given birth to this style of filmmaking had all but changed. However, as things “improved” in Italy, there were many other places in the world that were experiencing what Italy had in 1945. Umberto D. was not only a clinic on neorealist films, it was also a film that transitions itself to end with a cinematic claim to the end of neorealism and this period in Italy. However, writers and directors in other countries were so inspired by Italy’s neorealist legacy that it can be viewed as the beginning of neorealism for the rest of the world.
During the war under Mussolini, national fascist interests controlled the film industry, much like the country as a whole. Filmmakers either had to cooperate with the controlling government or make films that pleased the fascist regime, which usually violated their own creative sensibilities. During this time many filmmakers vowed to reach an “Italian Spring,” where they would be free to express the truth of Italy on screen. Soon after Italy was liberated, these filmmakers got their chance and Italian neorealism was born.
The subject matter was simple: to present Italy in its most truthful sense. Screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who worked with De Sica on Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. explains that neorealism was simply an attempt not to use style or creative film technique to obscure the reality of life in Italy at the time. “The task of the artist – the neorealist artist at least – does not consist in bringing the audience to tears and indignation by means of transference, but, on the contrary, it consists in bringing them to reflect (and then if you will, to stir up emotions and indignation) upon what we are doing and upon what others are doing; that is, to think about reality precisely as it is.”
Despite these attempts at truth, Italian neorealist film definitely bore a style. However, its style was in part a symptom of its circumstances, as the filmmakers struggled to gather resources, film stock, shooting locations, and actors. They oftentimes used untrained actors as leads and, because they knew how to re-dub the audio, they resigned themselves to shooting in busy streets. It was not until Umberto D. that people even began to discuss this period in Italian cinema as a movement. There was never any formal declaration by the filmmakers involved, nor were the films themselves very commercially successful. These conditions were no different for Umberto D.
Umberto, played by untrained actor Carlo Battisti, is an aged government pensioner whose wages are inadequate for him to maintain his standard of living in post-war Rome. Umberto’s plight is disregarded by most of the characters, as he disregards theirs. This is more a convention of the neorealist style of projecting a real person with real problems and real shortcomings, rather than a more constructed anti-hero character. Umberto’s companions are Flick, his beloved dog; Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), the maid who lives across the hallway; and his nemesis Antonia (Lina Gennari), the landlady of the Via Martini Della Battaglia hotel, whose apathy towards Umberto reflects a modern Italy eager to put the old Italy behind and enjoy its new prosperity.
Umberto is behind on his rent and he struggles to gather the funds to pay Antonia before she evicts him. He also learns that Maria is pregnant and will be evicted as soon as Antonia finds out. There is no incentive for Antonia to have sympathy for either character, even though Umberto looked after her during the war, when she used to call him “grandpa.” Antonia represents the new Italy, ready to forget the past and partake in the new. There are many scenes in the film that are pivotal to Umberto’s and Maria’s lives, but in keeping with neorealist conventions, there are also many scenes that do nothing to advance the narrative, but instead add to an understanding of the human condition of the characters. This is especially evident in Maria’s famous mourning scene. When Umberto takes ill and moves to a care mission, Maria agrees to look after Flick but loses him because of Antonia. When Umberto recovers and returns to the hotel, he discovers Maria, who has just been abandoned by her baby’s father. He ignores her despair in favor of his lost dog. There are hints of opportunities for Umberto and Maria to band together and tackle their problems by helping each other, but the film keeps to its neorealist roots and both characters eventually part ways, facing their fates alone.
Umberto finds Flick at the local dog pound and, in a very emotional scene that shakes the film’s neorealist foundation, he rescues Flick from a certain death. He then returns to the hotel only to finally realize that he has no hope of living there any longer. In another scene that suggests the end of the character as well as that of neorealism, Umberto contemplates suicide as a resolve to his despair. These neorealist aberrations are justified by Zavattini, in his previously quoted 1978 book Springtime in Italy: A Reader on Neorealism, co-edited with David Overbey: “The contents always engender their own expression, their own technique. Imagination, therefore, is allowed, but only on the condition that it exercise itself within reality and not on the periphery.”
Umberto D. is truly a neorealist film, but the question I find more interesting is whether in this film we see the end of Italian neorealism, and does it give birth to neorealism for the rest of the world? Major art movements sometime seem to be representations of the zeitgeist, with creative ideas all coming together in the same era to make statements about their times. And often these movements are the result of deliberate and explicit collaborations between artists and ideas. De Sica may have felt that neorealism died in Italy by the end of the credits in Umberto D., but the torch had already been past to Satyajit Ray with his Apu Trilogy that began in 1950 and started the Parallel Cinema Movement in Bengal and India proper. neorealist roots form in Ousmane Sembene with Borom Serret (1966) in Bengali Africa. In America, there was John Cassavetes in the 1960s and later Jim Jarmusch in the 1980s. More recently, you have directors like Jia Zhang-Ke in China, who with films like Still Life (2006) take neorealism into the twenty-first century.
This works because the true intentions of neorealism can never fade, and because there will always be a time and place for people struggling to exist in their environment. I think Zavattini says it best: “The true function of the arts has always been that of expressing the needs of the times; it is towards this function that we should redirect them. No other means of expression has the potential which the cinema possess for making things known directly.” If Zavattini is correct, this can be true for any person in any country at any time, and thankfully it has been. I hope that this tradition will continue to deliver the day-to-day inner workings of people’s lives in yet undiscovered films from Iraq and Afghanistan, to new films from Africa and Eastern Europe. These tenets of neorealism have held its meaning well beyond Umberto D. in 1952 and should hold for another 50-plus years and beyond.
Jason A. Hill is the Founder, Owner and Editor In Chief of Movies I Didn’t Get.com. He is a film critic and writer of articles and film reviews covering a variety of genres and film news that have been syndicated to many sites in the film blogosphere. He specializes in independent film in the US and Asia.
For more information please contact Jason at JasonAHill@MoviesIDidn’tGet.com.