Is there anything left for him? That is the question Umberto D. poses about its main character, a pensioner eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in post-WWII Italy. He has no family, no close friends, no support structure — nothing except his dingy apartment, the clothes on his back, and his dog Flike. His pension is pathetic, and is eaten whole by his rent. His landlady rents out his room to adulterers when he’s not there, and is preparing to throw him out whether or not he can pay his arrears. The only friend he has is the household maid, a girl who’s just discovered she’s pregnant and isn’t even sure which of the two soldiers she was dating is the father. She, too, will most likely be pitched out into the street.
Umberto worked for the state for thirty years — like the old man in Kurosawa’s Ikiru — but he is not only now discovering he is an irrelevancy. It has been creeping up on him for some time, and there has not been anything he could do about it anyway. He has several strategies for caring for both himself and Flike: when he goes to a local soup kitchen, he uses some sleight-of-hand to finagle extra food for the dog. He tries to hock his watch — possibly his thirty-year commemorative gift? — and sells what books he has. Even when he comes up with two-thirds of his back rent and promises the rest when his pension comes in, his landlady is still determined to get rid of him. She has pretensions about being a society woman, and grotty old-age pensioners renting rooms in her house have no place in such a vision.
After an unsuccessful attempt to pawn his watch (like every other old-age pensioner
in Italy), Umberto returns to his tiny rented room to commiserate with the maid, Maria.
Umberto D. takes a patient view of the old man, following him through a couple of days in his life, enough for us to see all we need to know about him. He returns home from the soup kitchen to find a couple necking in his room (and the door barricaded by chairs), and retreats into the kitchen. Maria, the maid, gives Flike water and tries to get rid of the ever-present ant infestation in the house by setting fire to a piece of newspaper and brushing the walls with it. What little solace she can offer will soon be gone, too, when the landlady finds out she’s expecting. He’s also convinced he’s ill, and there is a long and unsettling sequence where he tries to rest but cannot when he hears his landlady making merry down the hall, and we have the feeling there have been many nights like this in his life.
“I’d need to not eat for a month to pay my bills,” he says at one point. He goes to the charity hospital as a way to skimp that much more on food and have a clean place to sleep, but it’s a holding action: at some point he’s only going to get better and be sent back home. And when he returns home, he finds that his apartment is being turned into an extension of the living room, that Flike has run off, and that even the money he has in his pocket will not buy him another month of life. He finds Flike at the pound, and tries to use him to beg for money on the street (in a scene that is both funny and painful), but when an acquaintance walks by his sense of shame about the whole thing returns. He cannot beg, not even by getting the dog to beg for him. It is not in his nature, and it degrades the one thing he truly loves.
When illness descends on him, Umberto opts for the relative comfort of a charity hospital,
but its protection is fleeting and he knows he will have to return home before long.
The relationship between Umberto and Flike drives most of the movie, and it’s hard to describe why it works without making it sounding maudlin. A man and his dog — or a boy and his dog — is one of the perennial subjects of all fiction, and also one of the most hopelessly shopworn. The reason it works here, I think, is because it is not really about the dog but what the dog represents for Umberto. This is the only thing in the world that truly and selflessly cares about him, and that he can muster the effort to care about in turn. Everything else is conditional: he can only stay in the hospital for so long, his friends only care about him inasmuch as he is useful to them and not a burden, and so on.
Vittorio De Sica, the director, was responsible for another film not long before Umberto D. that essentially cemented his reputation for life: The Bicycle Thief. Even those who have never seen it know something of it, and it has the same matter-of-fact power today as when it was made in 1948. Both movies were hailed for documenting the frustrated and hungry world of post-WWII Italy, and for being the forefront of the neorealist movement in cinema. Neorealism meant looking at life as it was lived and not as it was contrived to be in a movie dream factory. This De Sica does through grounding the film in such specific details that it becomes angry and powerful, and by the end we’re looking at a personality and not simply a tired old man.
De Sica populated the cast of Umberto D. with unknowns and non-actors, and in the case of his lead, he searched tirelessly for someone who would embody at a glance the kind of man he wanted to be shown on screen. Umberto was played by Carlo Battisti, a professor at the University of Florence who lived for another twenty years after he appeared in his one and only movie role. Because he’s not “acting”, and for that matter neither is most of the rest of the cast, we receive what we need to know about him almost telepathically. Look at the way a scene late in the film plays out, where Umberto tries (unsuccessfully) to get a young couple to take Flike in, and where he realizes that the dog is going to get no care worth speaking of with these people. The body language and the looks in their eyes tell us everything we need to know.
The very end of the film is deliberately ambiguous, and for some people enraging: it involves Umberto trying, and failing, to abandon the dog. We’ve followed this sad old man through his misery, and now we want closure. But there is no real closure, since no real life lived like this would ever provide us with any. Some even speculate that the ending is deeply nihilistic: the old man and the dog still have each other, but to no real end now, since all meaning has been drained from their existences. What I see is not a happy ending, exactly, and not a despondent one either, but one which has a certain stubborn hope to it. He’s made it this far, and maybe he can make it a little further, and in that there is indeed something left for him.