In the 1930s and ’40s, a group of filmmakers in Italy decided, in the words of one of their practitioners, to show the world their rags. Neorealismo, or Italian neorealism, favoured natural locations to studio sets, untrained actors to matinee idols, and were a key influence on the French New Wave and Indian cinema’s golden era of the ’50s. Vittorio De Sica was perhaps the most representative of this genre, and Umberto D. was one of his most critically successful films (though it never won at Cannes, as the DVD cover erroneously claims).
Like most of his movies, it’s a simple tale – Umberto Dominigo Ferrari, a pensioner down on his luck, is evicted by his landlady and wanders around Rome in search of money, shelter and companionship. His only friend is his dog Flike, a mongrel with “intelligent eyes”. It’s a Chaplainesque conceit, but De Sica denies his main character the charm that could have turned this story into saccharine. Umberto, played by non-professional actor Carlo Battisti, turns his piercing gaze outward on the world (inward as well, in a heartbreaking moment when he almost considers begging) and receives in return occasional pity, but mostly indifference and contempt.
His mood darkens as the film progresses, and the general feeling of hopelessness is complemented by GR Aldo’s camerawork, which takes us, via the dog pound and the hospital, on what is decidedly not a Roman holiday. The film, however, is let down badly by the score. Too melodramatic for a film of this nature, sweeping when it ought to have be spare, it compromises De Sica’s approach by making the viewer feel manipulated into feeling sympathy. Apart from this, Umberto D. manages to remain clear-eyed and unforgiving.
A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.