Seeing Clearly Through Tears: On the Smart Sentiment of Umberto D.

Umberto D. is perhaps the most astringent film ever made about a poor old man and his dog. Critics today tend to like the astringent parts: the long, deliberately undramatic sequences full of mundane activity (such as a housemaid’s morning routine), performed with little or no dialogue and shot as if in real time. People who admire the work of such contemporary filmmakers as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chantal Akerman, and Abbas Kiarostami can see something up-to-date in this aspect of Umberto D., and even recognize in it a principal source of today’s cinema of the steady gaze.

These same critics generally dislike the pooch. They feel that screenwriter Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio De Sica did enough to immiserate their title character by depriving him of youth, family, friends, health, money, and home. Surely an audience needs no further prompting to feel the isolation of Umberto Domenico Ferrari. That the filmmakers also make him go everywhere with little Flike—clutching him to his breast, fretting over his well-being, ultimately begging the dog to come play with him—seems to these viewers an almost invasive ploy, as if Zavattini and De Sica were trying to force into their hands an already soggy handkerchief.

But as someone who begins weeping at the first notes of the title music—someone who thinks this film’s long, undramatic sequences can be seen best when watched through tears—I wouldn’t want Zavattini and De Sica to have backed off. I believe their greatest work, which surely includes Umberto D., kept touch faithfully with popular sentiment, even while helping to create the decidedly unpopular tradition of the art-house film. Perhaps today’s division between auteurist productions and mass-market movies might be eased, and contemporary cinema enlivened, if our filmmakers would more often put themselves at risk as Zavattini and De Sica did with Umberto D.

Of course, this prescription is open to question, considering that Umberto D. was released to utter disaster.

It was the fourth film that Zavattini and De Sica made together after World War II, and the first to fail. Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) had brought into focus, for domestic and international viewers alike, the intuitions, concerns, and methods of Italy’s best postwar filmmakers, and so had established neorealism as a movement. The impact on critics was enormous. “No more actors,” André Bazin wrote of Bicycle Thieves, “no more story, no more sets—which is to say that, in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality, there is no more cinema”—or, rather, that the film is “one of the first examples of pure cinema.” The impact on audiences was equally strong, with both Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves winning the Academy Award for best foreign-language film.

But what Zavattini and De Sica had established with these earlier films they brought to a close with Umberto D. Although the picture won the support of viewers abroad—the New York Film Critics Circle voted it best foreign film of the year, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Zavattini’s script for best screenplay—Umberto D. was a miserable flop at the Italian box office. Worse, upon its release in early 1952, the film came under attack from Giulio Andreotti in Libertà, the weekly organ of the Christian Democratic Party. Since the Christian Democrats had full, seemingly permanent control of the government, and since Andreotti (later to serve seven times as prime minister) controlled the state’s movie production loans, and exercised the right of precensorship over scripts, the brand of film criticism he practiced was unusually powerful.

According to Andreotti, De Sica was guilty of “slandering Italy abroad” by “washing dirty linen in public.” Writing in the voice of his party, his government, or the Italian nation—it wasn’t clear which—Andreotti said: “We ask De Sica not to forget the minimal commitment toward a healthy and constructive optimism that can help humanity to move forward and to gain some hope. It seems to us that the world fame that our directors have rightly acquired gives us the right to demand that he accept his duty and fulfill this task.”

This official condemnation, however damaging, would not have been enough in itself to doom Umberto D. with the public. You might imagine, for example, that the Christian Democrats’ political rivals would have rallied to the film. But the main opposition was the Communist Party, which had conducted its own attack against Zavattini and De Sica for what it too saw as pessimism. And so, in Italy’s highly politicized film culture, Umberto D. opened without organized support, to compete against the recently revived Cinecittà’s superproductions and such government-subsidized fare as Don Camillo (1952), a nougat-centered clerical farce.

With the dismal release of Umberto D., Italy’s neorealist period came to an end. But was the film itself dismal? Or was the pessimism that offended viewers in 1952 no more objectionable, intrinsically, than the sentimentality that bothers some critics today?

For the beginnings of an answer, one need look no further than the first images of Umberto D., which dramatize an impromptu street demonstration by old-age pensioners. The event has the circumstantial brusqueness of a news item—one of those fatti di cronaca that Zavattini liked to use as seeds for his stories. The street, shown in deep focus, appears to have more than enough space to accommodate the crowd. There’s even room for a city bus, which noses forward in the opposite direction of the march, as if to assert the rights of normal routine. Although Alessandro Cicognini’s music comes on with the throb of verismo opera, the initial view prompts curiosity more than tears. Some viewers may even let out an ironic laugh when the police drive in to break up the protest and the camera, shooting through the windshield of one of the cops’ jeeps, records the pursuit of the demonstrators: a gang of old men, who huff away in hats and flapping overcoats.

The camera glimpses Umberto two or three times during this ruckus, but it does not single him out until the protesters have dispersed, to pronounce curses against their own organizers and recover their breath. So Umberto D. introduces its protagonist as one figure among many. His situation, at first glance, seems faintly ridiculous. His person—embodied by the nonprofessional actor Carlo Battisti, a Florentine professor of linguistic science—is distinguished by an alert, somewhat rabbity face and fussy manner, which hint at a lifetime of intelligence expended to no real effect on the world.

The burden of decorum, the futility of culture: the film touches on these themes lightly, almost comically, in its opening sequence, but soon begins to insist upon them by positioning Umberto between two characters of contrasting status—apparently the last two people in the world with whom he is still in contact. As an educated, middle-class man, he might be expected to feel closer to the woman from whom he rents a room, but she is a tall, blonde monster of bourgeois pretension. Played by Lina Gennari with all the mannerisms that a veteran actor can muster and Battisti cannot, she comes across rather like an unfunny Margaret Dumont. By the end of the film, she will literally decorate Umberto out of her house, there being no space for him in her version of the high life. And so, despite being a gentleman, Umberto finds himself in concert with the housemaid (another nonprofessional, Maria Pia Casilio, discovered by De Sica when she was an apprentice seamstress), whose dark, ingenuous, button-eyed face is unmarked by book learning.

If I make this character scheme sound more diagrammatic than it actually plays, it’s only to make a crucial point about what Umberto D. is not. Unlike other neorealist films, such as Shoeshine or Bicycle Thieves, it is not a story about the working class. Nor does Umberto D. concern itself with the neorealist theme of economic hardship as such, despite Zavattini’s quickness in telling us, right in the first scene, how many lire Umberto gets for his monthly pension, how much he pays out in rent, and how much he owes. Beggars abound in the film, soup kitchens and charity wards extend their provisional shelter; but Zavattini also makes it plain that Umberto needs these resources partly because he ran up debts, while other pensioners are in the clear. When I say that Umberto D. pushes neorealism to new extremes, then, it’s not only because of the film’s extraordinary concentration on the mundane but also because of its subject matter, which goes to the limit of social criticism. Yes, poverty and old age bear down on Umberto, in ways that are specific to Rome in the early fifties—but the key problem is indecency. Umberto is slowly being stripped of his dignity, and even of the desire for dignity.

Which brings us back to Flike. He is the only major character other than the landlady to be played by a trained performer, the canine actor Napoleone. Perhaps this fact accounts for the movieness of Umberto’s interactions with him—a movieness that offends people who want a “perfect aesthetic illusion of reality,” giving the impression of “no more cinema.” But De Sica was not necessarily one of these people. He had spent his life in show business; in his youth, he had been Italy’s most popular star. He knew that sentiment is as legitimate a mode of storytelling as irony or satire, so long as the sentiment is honest—which I believe it is in Umberto D. If the main character feels that his humanity itself is slipping away, his sense of being a proper man, then why shouldn’t he have a sentimental relationship with a dog?

The great critic I. A. Richards once remarked that you could characterize an era of history according to a certain choice between anxieties: were people more worried about being thought sentimental or stupid? In Umberto D., two very smart filmmakers had the courage to jerk tears, and created a masterpiece. Couldn’t we use a few more?

 This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2003 edition of Umberto D.

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