Written by Lorenzo Tamburini, from Cinema Italia UK
When Vittorio De Sica starts filming “Umberto D.” he is already one of the most important directors of Italian Neorealism. “Sciuscià” and “Bicycle Thieves” have been international triumphs and have won him two honorary Academy Awards while the following “Miracle in Milan” masterfully mixed the social issues of post-War Italy with a delicate poetry which later inspired Steven Spielberg for one of the most celebrated moments of “E.T.”.
With the figure of Umberto Domenico Ferrari, De Sica – and his trusted screenwriter Cesare Zavattini – detach their cinema from the poorest and forgotten social levels to concentrate on a retired distinguished man, who struggles to survive inside an expensive and careless Rome.
Umberto is a son of a lost time, the requiem for an educated middle-class, wiped away by the arrogant violence of Fascism, whose dignity stands movingly as a rock against the greed and insensitiveness of a miserable society, personified by his vulgar landlady (Silvana Mangano will create a similar character, twenty years later, in Luchino Visconti’s “Conversation Piece”). His only friends are a modest but sincere young servant, who is pregnant, and his little dog, Flike. It will be the loyal and dedicated friendship of the dog to prevent Umberto from an extreme act…
As he previously followed the quest of his shoeshiners children first and the father and son later, Vittorio De Sica tells another story from an urban jungle where the soul of a man is put under threat by human cruelty, born by social and economic desperate conditions.
The Italian government, which wanted to promote an optimistic vision of a resurgent country, attacked the movie and its message, especially the initial sequence, the march of the pensioners. Yet, the ancient sweetness of this old man (Carlo Battisti was not an actor but a respected philologist of the University of Florence) and the humour surrounding some of his misadventures show a different direction in De Sica’s cinema. The diffused pessimism of his first neorealist movies has now left space to a bittersweet comedy, willing to leave some moments of relief.
Can we see “Umberto D.” as the first seed of the Italian comedy which was going to create a huge amount of masterpieces in the following decade? Probably not, but the sense of empathy that the audience feels for this old man and his dog (De Sica’s original title for the movie) is something still unusual in the Italian cinema of the time: the possibility of a smile after years of sufferings. Exactly how life, was right after the war.