Amongst the countless films we watch day in day out (or week in week out), dealing with the same tired premises, like a breath of fresh air, once in a while, we come across a one of a kind, straight from the heart, simple yet very profound film like Vittorio De Sica’s “Umberto D.”! The master of Italian Neo-realist cinema has never failed to wow me. “Umberto D” is no exception. Although it doesn’t quite match up to the greatness of my personal favourite De Sica film “The Children are Watching Us”, it is still a very important and poignant film with a noble message.
Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is an elderly man with apparently no one but his dog Flike by his side. He seems to be living on his pension which itself is not enough to pay off his back rent and his cantankerous landlady (Lina Gennari) keeps threatening to boot him out of the room if the debts aren’t settled soon. She apparently has other reasons than just the lack of payments to kick him out and maintains her stand anyway, refusing to even accept part of the payment, saying it is “all or nothing”. Soon, Umberto D. realizes the fact that she doesn’t want him to stay, no matter what. The film then relates Umberto D.’s desperate attempts at securing a stable shelter for his beloved Flike at least, if not for him…..
The sheer simplicity of Vittorio De Sica’s story-telling is astonishing! It is amazing how effortlessly De Sica executes the scenes in his film. Every scene is so down-to-earth, almost like they are real episodes happening in your neighbourhood with real people. There is no glamour here, absolutely no sugar-coating of characters or actors to make them look good and “cinematic”; these are real people; faces representing people you see every day.
It should be noted that most of the actors in “Umberto D.” were non-professionals, including the lead actor, Carlo Battisti. This was his first and last film role! Perhaps De Sica wanted as much realism as possible and hence the decision to cast non-actors!
De Sica paints a pretty accurate picture of how people react when it comes to helping others in need. Though not the whole populace, but a majority of them just speak of doing good deeds and being selfless, but when it comes to actually doing something for someone, they shy away. The kind of social apathy shown in “Umberto D” is not exaggerated. Also there definitely are people like the difficult landlady who treats Umberto, a man old enough to be her father, with such disrespect, it is not surprising that Umberto D despises her. There are other characters like the landlady’s maid Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), a young girl who really cares for Umberto and wishes to help him, but is already drowned in problems of her own, including one of her pregnancy from one of her boyfriends (she doesn’t know which!), yet both denying their role in it!
The film takes a more somber turn after the first half when the situation seems to turn utterly helpless for Umberto. That is where the real struggle starts; the most painful part of the film, and some scenes can’t help but move the viewer. It is in this part also that the most intelligent, unpredictable, and somewhat disturbing scenes of the film unfold. Most De Sica films have an effect on the viewers and tend to make them miserable by the end. “Umberto D” is no different, yet it is definitely uplifting as compared to some other De Sica films!
The acting from some of the cast is the weak point of the film but let us not forget, as mentioned above, most of the actors weren’t professionals. In spite of that, the lead actor Carlo Battisti delivers a sensitive, heartfelt performance. If I hadn’t read that he is not a professional I wouldn’t believe it, except in a couple of awkward scenes where it becomes slightly visible. As for Maria-Pia Casilio, this girl is a dead giveaway and practically exposes the fact that she isn’t an actress as she holds the same deadpan, wooden expression on her face in all of her scenes! Although she looks pretty cute with her doll-face, she can’t act to save her life, and it shows! The landlady, Lina Gennari on the other hand does a decent job.
Special mention must be made of the clever little mutt, the dog, Flike. Now how on earth De Sica managed to get the dog to do all those things is something awe-inspiring! Of course, they have trainers for dogs and I suppose this trainer must’ve been a real pro! Suffice to say that Flike is the only “actor” in this film that rivals Carlo Battisti’s performance! It is a priceless act; kudos to the team of trainers and De Sica for pulling off the job with the animal!
All you folks young and old, must certainly look “Umberto D.” up. It is a striking example of how much “substance” matters. Good content is all that is necessary to make a great film. You don’t need style, sex, glamour or violence.