If you have to choose just one of the two new Italian classic Cult Films label releases, then it should certainly be Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., one of the greats – arguably the great – of the Neo Realist movement, and as heartbreaking a melodrama as you could imagine. Indeed, the film left Mrs R in tears, only able to cry “poor little doggie”, as the film’s small scale tragedy unfolded.
The story of Umberto D. is, unfortunately, one that still feels relevant today – rising housing prices outstripping the cost of living, at least for those on the bottom end of the financial scale, in this case pensioners like the titular Umberto, who finds himself in debt to a heartless, shrewish landlady who wants him out anyway so that she can turn her home into a salon for bad opera singers. The film opens with Umberto (Carlo Battisti) trying to sell treasured possessions for meagre amounts in order simply to catch up with his debt, even though we can already guess that this would be a temporary solution, given than his current rent swallows up most of his pension. As the film progresses, he becomes more desperate, booking himself into hospital for temporary respite and even attempting – rather badly, as his pride and shame prevents him – from begging on the street.
While he meets various less financially-pressed (or possibly even well-off) acquaintances along the way, Umberto is unable to ask them for money openly, instead talking about his predicament and hoping that they will offer to help – but of course, everyone is keen to get away once the truth becomes apparent. His only real friends are the teenage maid who lives in his boarding house (a sweet performance by Maria Pia Casillo, who – like most of the cast – was not a professional actor), and his dog Flike. Much of the second half of the story centres around this latter relationship – while Umberto is in hospital, Flike runs away, leading to a tense visit to the dog pound that is the first point that the film moves from realist tragedy to really pulling on the heartstrings – devoted dogs and their desperate owners are always a good way of raking up the emotional content of a story.
And as we go on, it is as much Umberto’s fears about what will happen to his dog that drives the story – his sense of hopelessness as he tries and fails to rehome Flike, knowing that he himself will be on the streets, turns to desperation, and eventually leads to the film’s climax – a moment of despair that has been telegraphed (despite the sleevenotes calling this story ‘uplifting’, it’s pretty clear early on that things will get worse and worse, and lead to the inevitable, final act of desperation that hits many a person who’s life seems worthless) and yet remains genuinely shocking and upsetting.
De Sica makes no bones about the melodramatic aspects of his film – while this is neo realism, it also cranks up the drama as far as it can, and does so shamelessly. The film certainly has a gritty, realistic look to it, but in heart it is perhaps closer to a Chaplin film, minus the comic relief. While Umberto sometimes seems to be his own worst enemy – his pride and his stubbornness perhaps preventing him from dealing with his situation when there is still a chance – he’s also the classic tragic figure, Battisi’s performance perfectly capturing the sense of hopelessness and the relationship between man and dog almost guaranteed to melt even the hardest of hearts. Indeed, the little dog here – a scruffy mongrel “with intelligent eyes”, as Umberto describes him – is the perfect partner for Umberto, and ultimately his saviour. One could almost imagine a Disneyfied Hollywood reboot of this story, stripping it of the realism and making the characters into wilder caricatures.
Umberto D. is not exactly light viewing – after watching it, we were both left in a state of emotional exhaustion, quite honestly – but it is an essential cinema masterpiece, as well as a prime example of how melodrama – far from being dismissed as it often is – can be moviemaking at its best.