film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Umberto D (1952)

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Well, at least this was more of a neo-Realist film than Europa ’51 was.  That’s….not a complete rave, however – but to be fair, I may have been projecting a teeny bit.

“Umberto D.” (Carlo Battisti) is a retired civil servant, struggling to make ends meet in post-war Italy.  His pension is a pittance – in fact, we meet him first during a street demonstration of other pensioners, demanding a raise in their rates.  To save his pennies, he’s living in a room rented out by an indifferent landlady who turns a blind eye to the crumbling wallpaper and the pests, and who secretly rents his room out by the hour to couples looking for a hookup.  He eats at soup kitchens and is gradually selling off his meager possessions.  The only place he doesn’t cut corners is in caring for his little dog, Flike.

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That’s pretty much the story right there; Umberto struggles to get money to appease his landlady, care for Flike, and care for himself, in that order.  Any little incident threatens to topple his little house of cards – he gets sick, and has to scramble for someone to look after Flike, but also plays sicker than he is so he can stay an extra couple days in the hospital and eat well.  Flike runs away, and he has to head to the pound, praying that Flike is still there and that he has the money to pay the fine to spring him.

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Umberto’s closest thing to a friend is his landlady’s maid, Maria (Maria-Pia Casallo).  She’s similarly frustrated with the landlady’s lax standards, and she treats Umberto and Flike kindly – but she’s got her own problems, an unplanned pregnancy, which she’s keeping secret for now since she’s not sure which of the two soldiers she’s dating is the father. She confides in Umberto, and while he tuts a bit, he keeps her secret, earning her loyalty.  But her loyalty doesn’t come with cash, unfortunately, and Umberto starts considering more and more drastic means to get by – or not.

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So the thing that a lot of critics point to is how much Umberto struggles to maintain his dignity in the face of his problems.  And that is affecting – he’s always dressed nattily in a suit and tie, as clean as he can keep them despite his circumstance.  There’s a scene where Umberto briefly considers panhandling, standing on a streetcorner with his palm out.  But as soon as someone first looks at him, Umberto gets embarrassed and pretends he was just checking to see if it’s raining.  In another scene he meets an old colleague, and comes tantalizingly close to asking for a loan – but just can’t.  It’s an impressive performance – or perhaps it comes naturally to Battisti, since he was not an actor.  Battisti was actually a retired professor of linguistics, and this was his only acting role.

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What bothered me a little, however, was that the ending somehow seems a bit too unfinished. The last few scenes see Umberto toying with a drastic solution to his dilemma, but when even those plans fail, Umberto simply walks off somewhere with Flike, and….the film just sort of ends. It was probably meant to be a kind of “they still have each other and they’re facing the world together” ending, but that follows a particularly dramatic few moments (yes, I’m being deliberately vague), and I wasn’t really satisfied.  It’s a very, very neorealist kind of ending, still, and I’ve been pondering why it didn’t work for me this time; maybe the spectre of a retirement in poverty was making me long for some kind of happy ending reassurance that everything would be okay for him.

4 thoughts on “Umberto D (1952)”

  1. Here is the thing: why does Umberto want to stay put in a place he cannot afford, with people he does not like and which is not good for his dog? If Umberto had taken the consequence and moved to a cheap place in the country we would have had no movie. Instead we get a lot of anger and insults flying everywhere.

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    1. Interestingly, this is actually a comment that comes up a lot in discussions about how the rents in New York City are getting too high for some people to stay here. And while you’re right that it makes more sense ECONOMICALLY to move somewhere cheaper….why is economics the only thing we’re looking at?

      Moving away from a home town you’ve known your whole life can be VERY difficult – you’re removing yourself from familiar things, from people you know, from a support system (however small it may be). My rent would unquestionably be cheaper if I were to move away from New York. But – I would also be moving away from friends I’ve come to love, from places I’ve come to rely on and also love.

      Also, places in the country may not have services that cities can provide. At least here in the US, if you move to the country, you have to buy a car, because public transit is almost non-existant outside of cities. So if you don’t have a car, then a city with a public transit system is really your only option. Also, cities have a lot more options for different social services like libraries, cafes, soup kitchens, parks, and the like, which would all benefit the elderly in particular (and everyone else).

      Also, moving itself costs money. You need to have the money for a down payment on the place where you’re going to live, or the money to rent temporary lodging while you LOOK for a place to live. You also need to hire the people who are going to move your things for you, or pay to have those things shipped. If you are struggling to make ends meet then you may not have the lump sum on hand that you’d need to move.

      The whole arc of the film is that Umberto has been running out of options at every turn. The ability to move to the country is yet another option that is not available to him.

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  2. You are of course right in general terms. I live in a ridiculously expensive apartment in order to live in the city and there are too many arguments to stay rather than moving to a cheaper place. For Umberto however the situation is different. There is literally nothing that ties him to stay in the city except his own pride. His friends are gone and he hates the place he lives. The few people he does know I am certain could help him move. He claims he lives for his dog and it is not exactly thriving in the city. My claim is that he does have options but is stuck because of stupid pride. That makes him for me an unlikable character.
    Also, hey, he lives in Italy. Even the villages are more interesting than the average town anywhere else.

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    1. “He lives in Italy. Even the villages are more interesting than the average town anywhere else.”

      You realize that you are saying this from the perspective of someone who has lived their entire life outside Italy and only visited the villages, yes? There are very likely aspects to village life in Italy which you may not have seen, which might make them an unpleasant prospect after all.

      Also, you say “nothing but Umberto’s own pride” is forcing him to stay in the city. It appeared he did have friends in the city – remember those he greeted in the street throughout the film? And all of them are old, so they are hardly the hale and hearty movers you seem to think they are.

      Also, the soup kitchen he eats in partway through the film – the one where he sneaks food to Flike. How likely is it that such a kitchen would be available in a smaller town?

      With all due respect, I think you may be unaware of the pressures on people in this kind of poverty.

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