Umberto D (1952)
Dir. Vittorio De Sica
Starring Carlo Battisi, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lena Genneri.
So, I had a pretty bad few weeks for personal reasons. I've been trying, like we all are, to get myself to a healthier, happier place, make something of myself, connect with people. Love more. Live more. But it's not easy for a guy like me who spent most of his life hiding from the world and watching movies. I work at it, but it's so tenuous that its easy to get discouraged when things go poorly. And last week a whole lot of things I'd been meticulously setting up kind of came crashing down. Enough so that it appears some major life changes are in order, which is scary enough when you're doing them for yourself and even more so when they'e forced on you. I didn't have any clue what to do or where to go, I wasn't sure what tomorrow was going to bring (turns out, two speed-trap camera tickets from DC totaling 250 bucks, thank you very much you fuckers) and so I decided to drown my sorrows in cheap booze and Italian neorealism. I searched a long time til I found the description for UMBERTO D on Netflix:
Bankrupt and lonely, an old man (Carlo Battisti) considers committing suicide. Since he has only a devoted dog and a maid (Lina Genneri)* as his companions, things look bleak -- until one day when the old man's luck changes, giving him new hope. Director Vittorio De Sica's touching portrait of one man's effort to retain his pride in the face of adversity is a treasure of Italian post-war cinema.
Doesn't that sound exactly perfect? De Sica knows how to make the world feel like a crushing, brutal, hopeless place from which there is no escape save death (see: his other films. Or the ones I've seen anyway) and the fact that this one promises a happy ending right there in the description meant that I'd get the catharsis of that bleakness along with the happy ending I so desperately wanted to believe was out there for me.
Well, if you've seen this, you already know that that description is bullshit. Oh, the first sentence is right, and the second is accurate right exactly up to that last hyphen. Netflix, you bastard, watch this shit first all the way through before you describe it to us. So not really the pick-me-up one might hope for.
Anyway, its OK because its a pretty great film. As with many neorealist films, its cast is apparently all non-actors who somehow manage to be vastly more endearing and believable than most films featuring real actors. Our protagonist, Umberto, is an old man unable to get by on his paltry pension (in what was surely a hot-button issue at the time) and trying desperately to hold onto his dignity and his home as he becomes increasingly desperate for cash. Carlo Battisti plays him in a way which perhaps only a non-actor could – I think an actor would overthink it and try to give Umberto too much backstory and pathos and make him too relateable and sympathetic. Old people in movies are always full of wisdom and regret and scenery-chewing thoughtfulness.
Umberto seems more real – he's stubborn and a bit selfish, a bit foolhardy. He's suffered plenty but he hasn't exactly gained a lot of wisdom or empathy. Which is not to say he's a horrible asshole either, he's just a human -- and just as confused, myopic, and sad as any person at any age in this complicated world. The fact that he's not some victimized saint actually makes him more painfully real and makes you pull for him a little more. It makes you appreciate it more when he does the right thing and hurt more deeply for him when he can't quite make things work. His maid friend (Maria-Pia Casilio, in her first film role) is a young girl with big problems (she's 16, pregnant with nowhere to go and not sure who the father is – hey, did De Sica make the first ever episode of the oh-dear-god-please-don't-let-the-children-be-our-future series “16 and Pregnant”?). Like Umberto, she is sweet but utterly believable as someone naïve enough to get into this mess and young enough to not quite grasp the full implications of her sorry state in life. She's living one day to the next, doing other people's chores and constantly putting off til tomorrow any kind of plan, because fuck, when you're 16 what the hell do you do with that? A 16-year-old can't solve that kind of problem, it's just beyond their ability to imagine. You keep hoping Umberto will step in and help her with his wisdom and perspective, but he never does – he'd rather have her take care of him. And of course he would, he's got too many problems of his own to see past his own shit. She's got too many problems to know to ask him to.
Don't we all. The true sadness of the story is that despite being the only people in each others' lives, these two never quite come together. I think the story may well be about how our own problems enslave us in a way we don't often think about. Not only do they dominate the day-to-day of our lives, they keep us from looking up and seeing the people we should be paying the most attention to. What's more important, keeping your apartment so you can feel accomplished, or truly connecting with someone in this lonely world? And yet no one can get their attention on the big picture quite enough to see what they may be missing in their fellow humans. Poverty is dehumanizing, perhaps, not in that it robs us of our dignity, but in that it robs us of the luxury of being generous with others. It cordons us off, keeps us focused on the next meal, the long term fix. It makes us scared, stubborn animals, fighting with each other to stay above water.
Or maybe not, De Sica definitely seems to think this apartment thing is important and it definitely sucks a lot. Umberto is clinging to it because it's all that remains of his accomplishments, the only tangible thing he has to show that he lived his life (he has no wife or children). Which is plenty understandable, and heartbreaking in itself. But I think in the big picture this is probably representative of why he's left so alone at the end of his life. Too much time spent building, not enough loving. His one love is his little dog Flike, and after losing everything else the film's greatest conflict is if it will cause him to give up his one true companion as well. So I think De Sica and I may actually be on the same page about this, which means it has a somewhat more subtle subtext than most of these neorealist films seem to. It also means that there's quite a bit of possibly unnecessary wheedling about this and that detail of trying to pay the rent, some of it a little repetitive. But the noose tightens slowly and the film works up quite a bit of desperation and, yes, crushing, bleak resignation by the end.
The photography is, as benefits this sort of thing, unflashy but beautiful, capturing the contrast of worlds of wealth and poverty in 1950s' Rome, and lingering on the earthy details like the ants along the wall above the sink and the lined faces of the old men protesting their dwindling pensions. Interestingly, the final scene takes place in a garden and features a suddenly deep focus stretching into the distance. It still fits nicely with the realism of the rest of the photography but has something endless and surreal about it which almost invites some interpretation as to the possible poetic readings of what we're seeing. Is it a happy ending, after all?
I'd like to think so. Even with nothing much resolved, maybe the point is that resolving issues is a minor detail compared to loving life and the people in it. The answer to your problems is that there isn't one, and maybe there's enough worthwhile in life to go on anyway.
So thanks Netflix you lying sack of deceptive plot descriptions. You managed to inspire me anyway.
*No, Lena Genneri is his bitch landlady godDAMN it Netflix, get your act together. And while we're down here I have to say she's the only one in the movie who seems like a movie actress instead of a real person, and sure enough, she has a filmography going all the way back to 1933. It's a pretty one-dimentional character, but I feel like he should have stuck with someone who seemed more like an awful person in a more naturalistic way.