Umberto Domenico Ferrari is a retired bureaucrat living out his last days in a shabby boardinghouse, always on the verge of being evicted, alone except for the company of his beloved dog and the distracted kindness of the building’s chambermaid. This is the premise and pretty much the story of Vittorio De Sica’s justly celebrated Umberto D. (1952), a few days in the life of a man painfully aware of his lack of significance.
The film is squarely in the neo-realist mode, not just in its semidocumentary flavor and social justice theme, but also in the way it evokes pathos without resorting to sentimentality. It’s quite an achievement when a film asks us to shed tears over the undying love between an old man and his dog without becoming cloying or coarsely manipulative.
One of the master strokes of the film is that Umberto is not a very appealing guy — he’s not a cute and/or crusty old codger that we’re supposed to feel warmly toward, nor is he a dignified old man whose forced bowing beneath the blows of indifference is meant to arouse our empathy. Rather he’s a tightly wrapped curmudgeon, peering suspiciously out at the world through beady eyes, a petulant sufferer. And lest we think that hard times have so shaped him, there’s a couple of indications that he was always thus, namely two brief encounters with old acquaintances who, though civil, can’t seem to get away from him fast enough. And yet we come to care about him as the totality of society’s rejection becomes more and more apparent — nobody, not even an old bore, should be subjected to this.
Although Umberto is the center of the film, there are actually three levels of helplessness being observed here. While Umberto is approaching the end of his life, the young chambermaid — who looks to be about 17 — is just beginning hers and is already pregnant by a sailor who (even if she could determine which one) would have no interest in marrying her. When she confides in Umberto, his reaction is more censorious than helpful, but a tentative bond forms between the two, inspired mainly by their mutual hatred of the boardinghouse landlady, the movie’s one stock villain. The source of the latter’s hostility toward Umberto is never quite clear — apparently in the past they got along just fine — and she’s the only character in the movie who seems more serviceable (plot-wise) than realistic.
The third vulnerable character is Umberto’s dog. The old man is devoted to this one creature who accepts him as he is and keeps him company (devoted to the extent that he’s willing to give him up rather than drag him down into an even more precarious existence). Here De Sica and his co-scenarist Cesare Zavattini walk a fine line, never tipping over into bathos. They know that the tragedy of Umberto D. and his dog doesn’t need enhancement. It needs, for maximum effectiveness, only to be shown and to be seen.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].