I’ve seen a few De Sica films, including The Bicycle Thief and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis–both in Italian film classes I had as an undergraduate. I love Italian film. I love Italian Neorealist film because it deals with (and usually stars) regular/real people in real-life situations. It is for this same reason that I like the fiction of Muriel Spark–regular people, regular problems.
In Umberto D, De Sica presents the viewer with a hard-hitting view of life as a retiree in postwar Italy–well, that’s obvious, I suppose. Umberto was probably in his 70s and he was way past his prime in terms of being able to find employment. Today, we frequently see retirees working in our communities, filling in the gaps left by their meager Social Security checks. But, in postwar Italy, they weren’t as “fortunate” as we are today, or we will be in the future.
What was VERY surprising to me about this film was the way it ended. Umberto tries desperately to give the love of his life, his dog Flike, to someone who will take care of it. This is all so that he can feel comfortable, I suppose, in ending his life. But at every twist and turn, Umberto is unable to give Flike away, or even abandon him to Chance. It turns out that his love for Flike is a good enough reason to keep on living.
This ending reminds me a lot of the ending of another Italian film, Nights of Cabiria (1957) by Federico Fellini. Cabiria encounters many hardships before the narrative begins (she is a prostitute so one can imagine the hard life she leads), and certainly throughout the film. At the end, when the viewer thinks Cabiria isn’t going to be able to go on, we see her emerge from a dark wood (n.b. Dante’s dark wood of error), re-enter the world (the crowd of young people walking down the road singing and playing music), and smile with (possibly) a renewed appreciation for life. What will happen to Cabiria after that? Will she go back to prostituting herself, will she ever trust men again, will she do something else? Fellini is quoted as saying (I believe it is in either Ketcham’s or Bondanella’s text) that he deliberately leaves his film endings open for interpretation because he wants to viewer to make the ultimate decision. So rather than ending ambiguously, the film ends possibilistically. Ultimately, the film is for us, the viewers. It’s a medium for us to absorb and process in our own individual ways. I don’t know if Cabiria will go back to prostituting, but I know she’ll be happy. That’s what I get from the film. She’ll appreciate life. But this is surprising for the viewer in a way because after all she’s been through, it doesn’t seem like she has much to live for.
Umberto D also ends in an unexpected way, at least as far as I’m concerned. The viewer is expecting Umberto to find a place to commit suicide, and he does–an oncoming train. But a peripetetic moment comes when he’s literally on the threshold of his demise, holding Flike, and when the train comes rushing by, Flike escapes from Umberto’s hands–because HE’S not ready to die. Then we see a change in Flike–the normally very obedient and affectionate Jack Russell terrier doesn’t want to have anything to do with Umberto because Umberto has not only tried to take his own life, but to take Flike with him. It takes Umberto a little while to coax Flike back, to get Flike to trust him again. And the film ends with them friends again, walking away into the park happy and playing together.
This is unexpected because the trajectory of the film is such that the viewer is expecting Umberto to kill himself–he seemingly has nothing to live for: he’s old, he has no money, he has no place to live, he’s treated as an outcast. He’s at the bottom of the food chain and there’s little hope for him in society. But he defies expectations. Umberto gives us hope at the end that life isn’t so bad. Cabiria does the same thing–if she can live through it and be happy, what can we accomplish with our own happiness? But, alas, it isn’t that easy in the real world, right? Perhaps only in a neo-realist world can disaster end in a smile.
Umberto D also shines an interesting light on the way we treat the elderly. Pensions and Social Security just aren’t enough. We should be doing whatever we can to show our elder citizens (including our own parents and grandparents) the dignity they deserve as they get older and are unable to support themselves. The maid, Maria, is a great example of a compassionate soul who legitimately cares about the well-being of Umberto–perhaps because she inherently knows about hardship because of her unexpected pregnancy out of wedlock, and the future struggles she will endure as a result. Maria and Umberto are both in sticky situations–one is too old to work but still very capable of taking care of himself, the other is at a ripe age for working but she has gotten herself into a mess and will soon be fired when the Landlady finds out about her pregnancy. They both need help: the young and the old. They both get treated poorly by the landlady, Umberto is overlooked by his former colleagues, and Maria is overlooked by her two lovers. The viewer doesn’t know what will happen with Maria or Umberto but they will make it because they both show resilience throughout the film, and that is the best indicator of what is to come when you can’t read the future of a finished film.
I suppose what I’ve ultimately taken away from this film is that life itself is the silver lining to the problem of life itself.