Once at a lecture, actor-turned-director Vittorio De Sica told a story about his first experience with acting. He was cast as a martyr in a parochial school production. At the end of the play, students were supposed to “stone” him to death with fake rocks. One of his fellow students believed that he should have gotten the role, not De Sica, so he threw a real rock rather than a fake one. De Sica was hurt but the audience lauded the young man for his incredibly believable performance.
Even at this young age, De Sica learned the power of realism.
One of Italy’s greatest filmmakers, Vittorio De Sica began his career as an actor, appearing in his first film in 1917. By the 1930’s he had become a matinée idol, starring in numerous escapist comedies. Sometimes referred to as the Carey Grant of Italy, he would continue acting for the rest of his life, even receiving an Academy Award nomination for the film version of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.
In later years, De Sica became a master of directing comedies. He basically discovered Sophia Loren (not that she was easy to overlook) and cast her in The Gold of Naples, Marriage Italian Style, Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today plus the drama Two Women, for which the divine Sophia won an Academy Award. Late in his career he had a major success with Midnight in the Garden of the Fitzi-Continis, a film about the rise of anti-Semitism prior to World War II.
His most lauded accomplishments, however, came after the war when he was a pioneer of the neo-realist movement. Rebelling against the “cinema of the white telephones” – the very type of film that made De Sica famous – the neo-realists were a group of left-leaning, in some cases Marxist film artists who yearned to illustrate the plight of the poor and downtrodden following World War II. The movement was started by Roberto Rosellini who, along with screenwriters Sergio Amidei and soon-to-be master filmmaker Frederico Fellini, inaugurated the movement with Rome, Open City (1945). Filmed on the streets of the Italian capital right after the fall of Mussolini, Open City was shot with whatever film-stock was available on real locations, using available light and in most cases, using non-actors (one exception was Anna Magnani, who would later win an Oscar for the American film The Rose Tattoo).
Part of this approach was just making the best of a bad situation. Rome was bombed out and had descended into chaos. Cinecitta, Rome’s primary film studio, was decommissioned. Primarily though, this bare bones production method was also an aesthetic choice, developing an objective cinema whose style (or lack of) was never meant to be intrusive, only to observe. The films usually did employ a healthy dose of melodrama and were not above using children and animals as a means of emotional manipulation and once in a while the results were somewhat cloying. But at their best the neo-realist movement helped bring the cinema back into the real world and helped influence the more naturalist post-war American cinema, the French New Wave and many other film movements to come.
De Sica’s first major contribution to the neo-realist movement was Shoeshine (1946) which told the story of two juvenile bootblacks who are unfairly sent to a detention center. It was one of many films that De Sica would collaborate on with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who first met De Sica when he acted in a film Zavattini had penned called I’d Take A Million. Though Shoeshine has not, in my opinion, aged as well as many other neo-realist movies of the period, it certainly made an impact on the world of cinema. It received a special Oscar in 1948, Pauline Kael described it as one of the most devastating moments of her film-going life and Orson Welles marveled that De Sica managed to do what he never could do on Citizen Kane, simply making the camera disappear so as to allow life to unfold before our very eyes.
Two years later De Sica directed what is not only considered the greatest of all neo-realist movies but one of the most sublime achievements in cinema history. The Bicycle Thief tells the simple story of a poster hanger who needs to get his bicycle out of hock in order to do his job, only to have the vehicle, and his livelihood, taken away from him by a thief. If ever there’s a film that every human being on the planet must see, it’s The Bicycle Thief.
In 1952 De Sica directed Umberto D., the story of an old man trying to survive on a meager pension. To play the lead role of Umberto Dominco Ferrari, De Sica cast Carlo Battisiti, a former linguistics professor who was himself dealing with retirement and old age. As De Sica once pointed out, “there is one role that anyone can play, themselves.”
The film opens on the streets of Rome, and the Eternal City has undergone a great deal of renovation and restoration since Open City. Umberto takes part in a demonstration along with a number of retired gentlemen, protesting the meager pensions they receive after a lifetime of working in the public sector. Umberto himself spent thirty years of his life working for the Minister of Public Works. Now as an old, enfeebled man he can’t even pay his rent.
Umberto has no family, except for his little dog and constant companion, Flike. His landlady (played by Linda Gennari, one of the only professional actors in the movie) is not only threatening to throw Umberto out but she’s already renting out his room by the hour to prostitutes and their clients. To pay his back rent, Umberto sells is gold watch and some textbooks plus he’s leant some money by a friend. He tries to give his landlady the wad of cash, but it’s only five thousand lira, and he needs fifteen thousand. As far as she’s concerned, it’s either all or nothing.
Also living in the apartment is a young pretty housemaid (Maria-Pia Casillo). She confides in Umberto that she is pregnant. She’s not sure who the father is, having had relations with two different soldiers at a next door army base. She knows that the landlady will fire her and throw her out when she finds out about the pregnancy but she doesn’t seem terribly melancholy. Unlike Umberto, the weight of the world has not yet crushed her.
That evening our hero develops a fever and is taken to the hospital. His motive is to get well, but he also hopes that by staying in a hospital ward that he can save some money on food (I can’t imagine that back then hospital food was as bad as it is now). He meets a patient in the bed next to him who knows how to manipulate the sympathies of the nurses (all of whom are nuns) and extend his stay. Frankly, Umberto is too proud for this.
After a few days in the hospital he returns home. To his horror he finds workmen in his room, tearing out one of the walls. He learns that his landlady is getting married and that she is planning on turning Umberto’s room into a new parlor. And that’s not the worst of it. The housemaid, who promised to look after the dog, informs Umberto that during the renovation on his room, Flike ran out of the apartment and has been missing ever since!
Umberto uses what little cash he has to take a taxi to the dog pound. He frantically looks at all of the canines in the cages but doesn’t see Flike. He does see a cage full of dogs being shoved into a gas chamber. This scene was, of course, shot in a real dog pound. We the audience know all to well that for these dogs, it’s not “only a movie”.
Thankfully, Umberto finds Flike just before he leaves the pound. Cynics could sneer at this scene and dismiss it as manipulative drivel. But most people who have dogs or cats do at some point face the prospect of their beloved animals running away and the sheer horror of realizing that they may never see them again. Because we see that Umberto has no one in the world but Flike, and because De Sica doesn’t sugarcoat the possibility of what Flike’s fate will be if he’s not recovered, the emotions one feels at Umberto and Flikes reunion is genuine.
The joy is short-lived though. Umberto is still broke and still facing the prospects of homelessness. In one scene that does come dangerously close to being coy, Umberto, who is too proud to beg for money himself, gives little Flike his hat and instructs the little mongrel to sit up and beg with the hat in his little jaws. Admittedly this almost seems like something that Eddie on Frasier would do. When one of Umberto’s former colleagues walks by, Umberto quickly takes the hat back and insists that Flike was just playing.
With no money and no prospects, Umberto says goodbye to the housemaid and begins to wander the streets of Rome. Now truly at the end of his rope, he finds himself trying to find a new home for his four-legged companion so that he can finally put an end to his life in this cruel world.
Umberto D. is not as perfect as The Bicycle Thief. Indeed, hardly any films are. But it is a film that packs an emotional wallop and was justly rewarded in its day, winning the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Film while Cesare Zavattini received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. Ingmar Bergman once cited Umberto D. as his all time favorite film and De Sica himself considered it his personal favorite of all his films.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, De Sica was not a committed Marxist. De Sica lived well his entire life and indulged in one of his greatest loves, gambling, which on more than one occasion nearly ruined him. Many of his peers condemned The Bicycle Thief for not attacking the rich as well as highlighting the plight of the poor.
Still, there is an undeniable political undercurrent in Umberto D. that rings true today. Every odd year in this country politicians make noise about cutting social security and medicare, only to retract such statements in even years (seniors vote in record numbers, you know). Today many old people cannot afford to retire after a lifetime of hard work. They have either lost their 401k’s or find themselves living on a fixed income that does not keep pace with the cost of living. In cities the world over there are people like Umberto, unable to work, too proud to beg and facing the prospects of spending their remaining years in destitute. Hopefully they have a companion to ease the burden.