Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 work, Umberto D. represents an important point in film history. Umberto D. is one of the last Italian neorealist films made. The style in 1952 is mature and developed, but beginning to change course. Umberto D. is more accessible than many earlier neorealist films like Rome, the Open City. It is an important film historically because it is typical of many neorealist themes, expands on a few others, and works into a new use of sentimental drama. The film typifies neorealist methods in it’s treatment of setting, lighting, and character. De Sica shows innovation in his depiction of Umberto’s suffering, and in the way he blends a sweet life affirming message into a harshly realistic film.
Settings in Umberto D do not look like movie sets. They are convincing as real places because they are real places. The shots are clear and honest like a documentary. Close shots and long shots are used to establish scenes (often during dialogue) without traditional establishing shots. Lighting is mostly uninteresting, but clear and realistic. In indoor scenes, where lighting was probably necessary, there is no subdued or shadowy lighting at all. Scenes with artificial light still aim to appear as a real room would if the veiwer walked in with the characters.
The characters are more like real people than movie character archetypes. They are believable because they look as though they are shown in an unbiased, uncontrived way. The evil landlady, Lina, is perhaps the most one-sided character but even she is shown as human. Life events that don’t help her development as a classic villian are gradually revealed during the story. Maria, the housemaid who befriends Umberto, is pretty and kind but there is no attempt to show her as intelligent, glamorous, or absolutely good, as such a character might be in a more mainstream 1950’s drama. Umberto himself mumbles complaints throughout the movie like a crotchety senile person. He takes Maria and Flike for granted, and never considers working. Because he is niether innocent, starving, nor altruistic, the audience only feels for him when they see themselves in him. De Sica does successfully evoke audience sympathy for Umberto but not by making him a contrived archetypical character.
Multifaceted, realist treatment of human suffering is also explored well in this movie. Other neorealist films tried to show horrific suffering of the innocent with an unbiased eye, but De Sica takes it a step further. Umberto and the protesters in the beginning of the movie are campaigning for a raise in pension. By modern American standards, this is a bit like a beggar trying to raise money for a better car. This idea that Umberto’s suffering is more complex than starvation or poverty is illustrated repeatedly. The man who sympathetically buys his watch only has small bills because he is a panhandler. At the beginning of the story, Umberto’s suffering seems like the suffering of a rich person who has to live like lower middle class but by the end it becomes clear that what he really wants is to not feel discarded. Umberto’s pain looks authentic because it is like real life pain, and not a cinematic oversimplification.
The film deals well with the relateable conflict of how one can be suicidal while still loving the world. The rest of the film’s main purpose is to build to the end scenes in which Umberto attempts to die. Flicke, the cute dog, represents all the good that is left in the world, and all the good that is in Umberto’s remaining years. He can’t dispose of his life and his sadness without also rejecting the goodness represented by Flicke. He tries in vain to find a place to leave Flicke that he can feel good about but he cannot, and the dog remains as a barrier between Umberto and his will to discard his self. The soundtrack helps these final scenes along masterfully. The sentimental drama is spread thick in these scenes, without much action or dialogue. Because of the way the rest of the film informs these scenes, they still work. The contrived sappyness is uncharacteristic of strict neorealism, yet easy to forgive because everything leading up to it seems authentic.
The ending may have been jarring to contemporary audiences but the complex themes being explored are actually brought to an effective resolution. The sappyness and accessibility are equal to that of a 50’s Hollywood drama, but the drama in this film is far more believable and artfully presented. Historically this film represents a maturation and expansion of the genre.