Umberto D. (1952): A Lovely Introduction to Italian Neorealism

Something washed over me when I was watching Umberto D., the 1952 classic Italian neorealist film directed by Vittorio De Sica.

In the wake of Ken Loach‘s masterful I, Daniel Blake, I felt a sense of deja-vu in reverse. The similarities were jarring – the tale of a poor, elderly pensioner (Carlo Battisti) for whom the social safety net has failed, resulting in him struggling to regain his footing and dignity in a seemingly indifferent world. In Umberto D., this “world” is embodied not only in the form inadequate pension compensation but also in the person of the landlady (Lina Gennari) of the Roman boarding house where Umberto resides. Due to back rent due, Umberto is facing eviction.  Through this struggle, there are a few bright spots, his loyal four-legged companion Flike and the young maid (Maria-Pia Casilio) who manages the housekeeping for the boarding house. In the latter, he finds a kindred soul for she is struggling with her own personal crises – being an unwed young woman who has fallen pregnant.

As the film progresses, so does Umberto’s desperation to try to hold onto something of a normal life and not one of absolute destitution and homelessness. The story builds and builds to a harrowing climax, which is sure to leave you on the verge, if not in a full state of tears. By the time the word Fin appears on the screen, you are left with a feeling that is part life-affirming, part uncertainty about what the future possibly holds.

I really do not know what else to say about this film – it is a simple story beautifully told and portrayed. Often, the most impactful moments are captured with the bare minimum dialogue. It’s in the quiet, still moments, when we see our characters wearing their weariness on their faces, that the story is at its most profound and poetic.

Italian neorealism is not something that I am overly familiar with except in the general knowledge that it was a popular movement in a post-war environment, punctuated by stories of the of the working- or under- class. On the heels of Umberto D., my interest is definitely piqued.

Umberto D. is available on Criterion DVD/BluRay as well as iTunes.

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