I said to Rizzoli, who incidentally is a leading Italian publisher as well as a producer: “Allow yourself the luxury of Umberto D., just as you would publish a classical edition.” That hit the mark.
I very much hoped that my good friend Rizzoli would earn some profits from Umberto D., but unfortunately he did not. This troubled me profoundly. Not only did it flop financially in Italy, but also abroad. In France, it was a victim of poor commercial exploitation. In Britain, [producer Alexander] Korda kept it locked away for so long. Now it has had a limited success in specialized cinemas. For once, I have to be immodest, for I really believe that Umberto D. is a good film, and not just because it was an exceptional event for me as a man as well as an artist.
Umberto D. is the film that I prefer among all those I have made, because in it I have tried to be completely uncompromising in portraying characters and incidents that are genuine and true. I have sought with great humility to approach the true, poetic and limpid style of the great Robert Flaherty.
What matters is Umberto today, in his seventies, alone near the close of his life, with all the burden of bitterness and of past struggles that has made him an irritable old man, almost unpleasant. In his behavior, he is neither pathetic nor sentimental. He is good only to the good and extremely disagreeable to those who are not good to him.
What is the meaning of the film? It seeks to put on the screen the drama of man’s inability to communicate with his fellow man. The economic condition of Umberto is not what concerns us. What concerns us is the loneliness of an old man. Men do not communicate with one another; how then, can they communicate with Umberto?
Society, which is hostile to him, and mankind, which is alienated from him, are represented in the film by the landlady of the house where he has rented a room for the past ten years. The war is over, the cost of living has risen, and the landlady now wants to take Umberto’s room away from him. She wants to redecorate her house and thus increase the income of her future husband by renting Umberto’s room for at least double the price.
Where will Umberto go? Other rooms, in other houses, cost twice as much, and he cannot pay fourteen thousand lire, since he receives only twenty-eight thousand lire a month. This is the simple story. It is also the egoism of all of us. Indeed, there is a little of this landlady in all of us! Like her, we all have the sacred right of bettering ourselves, and it matters little to us that Umberto (an old man at that) is in an almost desperate plight. However, the drama of Umberto is not quite this. It is something else.
Human beings have this primitive, perennial, ancient fault of not understanding one another, of not communicating with each other. This is the story of Umberto D. — that is to say, of a man like ourselves.
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.
– Vittorio De Sica
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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 [Cesare] Zavattini and [Vittorio] De Sica did with Umberto D.
The impact [of Neorealism] on critics was enormous. “No more actors,” Andre 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.
Although the picture won the support of viewers abroad… Umberto D. was a miserable flop at the Italian box office.
According to [Giulio] Andreotti, De Sica was guilty of “slandering Italy abroad” by “washing dirty linen in public.”
“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.”
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 Cinecitta’s superproductions and government-subsidized fare.
With the dismal release of Umberto D., Italy’s neorealist period came to an end.
Umberto D. introduces its protagonist as one figure among many. His situation, at first glance, seems faintly ridiculous. His person… 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.
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.
Perhaps [Umberto’s interactions with his dog Flike] accounts for the movieness of Umberto’s interactions… 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 those 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?
[Excerpts taken from “Seeing Clearly Through Tears: On the Smart Sentiment of Umberto D.” by Stuart Klawans, The Criterion Collection]