by Bosley Crowther
Old age has never been a topic of particular interest to makers of films for a very obvious reason: It is not one that particularly appeals to the vast majority of moviegoers, not even to those who are old. Age, at best, is a condition that merely symbolizes the ultimate stage of fulfillment of the work ethic and moral respectability. The place of old people in movies is generally that of genial contrasting characters to those who are young, aggressive, and usually sexual. At worst, old age is a plateau with no horizon except death. It is not a human condition that invites wishful fantasies and dreams.
That is why it was uncommon for Vittorio de Sica to choose to make a film that was totally concerned with the impoverishment of an old Roman pensioner while he was still in the first flush of triumph and success with The Bicycle Thief. No one obsessed with box office could possibly have approved his choice of the subject of old age at that particular stage of his career. But de Sica and his favorite scriptwriter, Cesare Zavattini, were bent on making such a film for personal reasons that were heedless of commercial advantage. Being humane individuals, as their previous successes together showed (Shoe Shine, The Bicycle Thief, and Miracle in Milan), they wanted to dramatize the pathos, and by implication, expose the larger social tragedy of those who had spent their lives working in small white-collar jobs and, when old, alone, and of no more commercial use, were cast aside. Further, de Sica was anxious to make a film that would suitably serve as a memorial to his father, who himself had been a modest pensioner. The consequence of their determination was the classic Umberto D.
I still find it vastly unsettling to my emotions and sensibilities to see again this lovely picture, which was a model of simplicity and concentrated neorealism within its limited cinematic frame. For it did nothing more than consider the plight and destiny of its gentle, aging hero who had only the companionship of his dog Flick and the casual friendship of a rooming-house slavey to comfort his loneliness. There was no oversentimentality in it, no playful old codger cliches, although there were many touches of humor and amusing glints of stubborn character. The only thing that could possibly have rescued the old gentleman from his obvious destiny was a fictional contrivance of some sort, and that the authors would not provide.
Opening on a nondescript gathering of angry, shouting old men in front of a government building demanding payment of their pitifully small pensions—a scene which adequately defined the extent of the social problem before the men were dispersed by the police—the drama was then confined to the endeavors of the one old man to sustain himself and his dog. A stop at a government mess hall where he was surrounded by other old men, all of them neatly dressed in worn clothes and quietly dignified—and where he slipped his own plate of pasta under the counter to feed his dog—then on to his lodging house where he was briefly locked out of his room while a transient couple used it for a “matinee”; it was clear he was in peril of being thrown out by a pitiless proprietress who was demanding his back rent.
Such was the substance of the drama: the feeble but determined efforts of the old man to sell his few valuable possessions—a watch and some scientific books—to give him enough money to hold on to the tiny room he had called home for years. In a pitiable endeavor to stave off immediate eviction, he secretly called a charity hospital and had an ambulance come to fetch him. But, of course, it was a losing battle. When he returned to the rooming house, after an amusing interlude in the hospital, he found his room was being dismantled and that little Flick had been lost. Desperately he went to the dog pound to try to find it, and there he blankly observed the matter-of-fact facilities for destroying unclaimed dogs. But de Sica did not dwell on this experience to milk an agonized response or do more than suggest a gruesome metaphor.
The old fellow found his pup and, on the way home, he saw an old man successfully begging. So, in front of the Pantheon, he made a tentative, embarrassed try to stick his hand out for money. But when a passerby stopped and was about to put a coin in his upturned palm, he quickly turned it downward. He could not endure the humiliation of accepting alms. Then he had Flick sit on his haunches and he put his neat black fedora in the dog’s mouth, while he himself slid into the shadows of one of the pillars of the ancient building. But this time a friend who was passing recognized the dog and, discovering the old man lurking in the shadows, greeted him cheerily, laughing at the dog and assuming the old man was playing a trick.
This time, back at his lodgings, he found his room totally torn apart, furniture moved out, a hole broken through to another room. The landlady was having the house renovated so she could get married. The silences of the old gentleman, his tacit despair, and the evidences of surrender written on his face and in his eyes were clearly prefatory to the thought of suicide which was implied when he went to the window and looked out upon the glistening street four stories below. But he put the thought from his mind at that point when he turned back and saw Flick lying quietly on his bed.
At dawn the next morning, however, he packed his sole valise and left the house, with only a poignant good-bye to the awakened slavey, who was astonished and saddened by his departure. To her anxious inquiry as to where he was going, he simply said, “I am going to a new place.” And then, his last word to her from down the stairs, where he paused for a moment, was, “Give up the man from Florence,” meaning one of the two young soldiers (she wasn’t sure which) who had got her pregnant.
An attempt to lodge the dog at a boarding kennel with a payment to the scruffy proprietors of all the money he had was abandoned when the dog showed fear of other barking and snarling animals. So off to the outskirts of the city he went and there, with the dog in his arms, he stood on the tracks at a railway crossing and waited for a passing train to kill them both. But a sudden struggle by the dog to leap out of the old man’s arms just as the train came upon them tumbled the old man off the tracks, while the dog itself disappeared. Dazed, the frightened old gentleman stumbled to his feet and looked blankly at the train roaring past, not knowing—and terrified to imagine— what he would see after it had gone by. But as it did, he saw the animal calmly sitting and looking at him on the other side of the track, the image of unshakable trust and undying loyalty.
Well, that was obviously the climax and conclusion of this poignant account. Nothing more could be said or imagined about its abject finality. The rest of Umberto’s story was as classically undefined as was that of Charlie Chaplin’s put-upon Little Tramp as he walked off into the sunset at the end of one of his films. So de Sica and Zavattini concluded this one similarly with the old man and his small companion frolicking wistfully in the beams of autumnal sunshine down a lengthening alley of trees. It was a fadeout that could be taken as a metaphor for death, for there surely was no other haven for this lonely, abandoned pair.
It was evident that de Sica did not intend or expect this drama to manifest the substance and the logic of a ‘‘well-constructed’’ film. At no place was the background of the old man described or explained. He was simply an individual, forsaken and alone—let us say, the personification of the irony of old age, a relic of the past, now possessed of nothing more than pride and dignity.
The fact that de Sica could convey this in the language of visual images, the old man against the setting of the cheap and sleazy rooming house and the hard, cold streets and ancient buildings of a remote, impersonal Rome, was again a token of his cinema artistry. He could animate the life of human beings against the imperviousness of stone. And he used a true Roman for his hero. In Carlo Battisti, a college professor who had never acted before, he had a splendid image of the persona he wished to show: quiet, dignified, impassive on the surface, yet clearly full of anguish underneath, smoldering with moral outrage, indignation, and grief. But he never appeared self-pitying, nor did the authors indulge such a state. He was the ultimate manifestation of the finality of age.
As the slavey, little Maria Pia Casilio was his counterpart in many ways, equally lonely, neglected (except by the young soldiers in the barracks across the way), facing the forlorn prospect of bearing a bastard child, yet brave and maintaining her composure with her measure of dignity. The little things she did for the old man and what he tried to do for her were the sole tokens of human compassion and generosity in the film. For Lina Gennari’s landlady was a lump of selfishness and vanity, and all other passing individuals were merely beings that paused for a moment, then went their ways.
I don’t imagine anybody, including de Sica, ever got much money from Umberto D., but I would think it was one of the most rewarding films the great director ever made.
Bosley Crowther, Vintage Films, pp. 126-129