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.
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.
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.
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.
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.