Umberto D.: The Best Movie of All Time?
The 1952 Neorealist film Umberto D. directed by Vittorio De Sica is not the film you’d want to watch if you’re trying to brighten your day. In fact, it might be just the film to watch if you want to make your day thoroughly depressed. This is not to say that the film should not be watched. On the contrary, it is a must-watch.
It follows the story of old and ordinary Umberto D. Ferrari, a retired man struggling to live off of a meager pension, and his beloved dog Flike. The film takes its main character through a series of unfortunate events, never once passing a hint of hope, and yet it avoids turning Umberto into a sickeningly pathetic figure, a figure that must be pitied. It is Umberto’s pride that prevents this, and, interestingly, it is also his pride that prevents him from choosing options that may lessen his struggles.
The making of Umberto D. was tedious as De Sica was looking for a very specific face to play the character of Umberto. He could not find that specific face for the longest time until he wandered across a crotchety old man in the street–Carlo Battisti, a linguistics professor. Not daring to let the man get away, De Sica followed Battisti to the university where he worked and patiently waited until Battisti finished teaching his class to persuade the old man to act in his film.
The Making of Umberto D.
Battisti, unsure why someone would want him, a man who had never acted a day in his life, as an actor, but eventually he agreed.
Umberto’s first dilemma in the film is that his pension isn’t enough to pay his rent, a problem which his landlady does not allow him to forget as she constantly threatens to throw him out. His apartment is not much to look at: walls cracked, paint chipping, limited space, ants always finding their way inside. Yet, it is still a roof over Umberto’s head and he is determined on keeping the place. He sells one of his last dear possessions: a dictionary. He also tries to sell a pocket watch, but neither of these items are able to get him enough money, and the landlady will only accept payment in full.
Then, Umberto is struck with tonsillitis and must go to the hospital for treatment, but before he leaves his apartment, he entrusts his dog Flike to be cared for by the landlady’s young maid, one of the few characters who shows kindness to Umberto but proves to not be of much help. As soon as Umberto leaves the hospital, he finds that his apartment has been torn apart to make space for a living room, and the maid tells him that Flike ran away.
At the city pound, Umberto desperately searches for Flike, in the process witnessing cages full of unwanted dogs being gassed to death in small chambers. Fortunately, Umberto finds Flike before he can meet the same fate. However, Umberto is now left without a place to stay and with next to no money. He encounters an old friend in the street and explains his woes, but his friend, in a hurry to catch a bus, disregards him and offers no help.
Then comes the most iconic sequence of the film: Umberto, standing before the pillars of the Pantheon, attempts to beg for money. He outstretches his hand reluctantly to an approaching man, but as soon as the man tries to give him some money, Umberto, weakened by his pride, turns his own hand around as if checking for rain. Umberto gives Flike his hat and hides near the Pantheon’s pillars, but no one bothers to drop any money into the hat.
Between the massive pillars, Umberto appears withered and entirely insignificant. The pillars may reflect society: powerful, capable, but cold and unwilling to help those that are worn out and can do nothing in return. Ultimately, Umberto decides that suicide is the only way around his problems while keeping his dignity intact. He first tries to find someone that would adopt Flike but finds that even this is an impossible task. Flike is just as unwanted as Umberto.
It truly is only the dog that gives Umberto any sense of comfort and happiness. Unwilling to let Flike wander the streets, he takes the dog with him as he steps onto a set of train tracks just as a train is approaching. Flike, however, breaks free of Umberto’s grasp at the last second and runs away, causing Umberto to step away from the tracks as well.
Umberto finds Flike in the nearby park, the dog frightened and keeping his distance from his owner. The film ends unceremoniously with Umberto following Flike through the park, trying to get him to play with a pine cone.
The ending does not fix any of Umberto’s problems. There is no evidence to argue that Umberto would not go right back to the train tracks as soon as he gets Flike back. While Umberto D. was popular in other countries, it was massively unpopular in Italy and is the film that many believe marked the end of the Neorealism movement. Today, however, it is seen as an enduring example of inescapable poverty and human disconnection. Even in our modern times, there are thousands upon thousands of Umbertos across the world that most people try their best to ignore.