A heartfelt portrait of an impoverished retired civil servant who lives in a rented room in postwar Rome with only his beloved dog and a teenage housemaid as companions. Faced with eviction when he can't keep up with his rent, the old man struggles to make ends meet and maintain his dignity, but his growing despair leads him to contemplate suicide.
‘One of the first evenings I was in Hollywood, Merle Oberon invited me to her home… She organized a dinner in my honour, inviting the whole film aristocracy from Chaplin to Sam Goldwyn. Knowing that I had brought with me a copy of Umberto D. she persuaded me to let her run it… When the projection finished … I looked at Chaplin: everyone else had risen and they were all gesticulating. He still sat there immobile, with his eyes closed. Two minutes went by. I began to feel sick in the stomach and a sort of panic seized me. Then he spread out his arms and opened his eyes.
I saw he was crying like a baby.’
Vittorio De Sica1
Sociological film criticism is forever mistaken because it is forever misses - on humanitarian principles or by self-righteousness or from colour-blindness - into confusion ends with means. Asserting that importance lies in subject matter, it fails to recognise that no subject is important until awakened by art; assuming (to give its charity the benefit of the doubt) that love is greater that art, it fails to acknowledge that the art is the love. Vittorio De Sica’s film, Umberto D. (1952) … provides a characteristic opportunity for confused judgement. To praise the film for its human appeal is as needless and as miserly as to praise a beautiful woman for her conspicuous virtue.
In fact the most banal of everyday situations release accumulated ‘dead forces’ equal to the life force of a limit situation (thus, in De Sica’s Umberto D., the sequence where the old man examines himself and thinks he has a fever).
Umberto D. Is a picture of alienation: alienation countered by affection. The affection of the portrayal, the camera’s and ours, counters the alienation portrayed, the breach Umberto D. feels between him and just about everyone and everything around him. The world is distant but we feel close; the world is cold but there is warmth that may kindle it. Yet when the old man at last despairs of life and, intending to do himself in, leaves the room where he is not wanted, says good-bye to the maid, gets on a streetcar and sees her receding him from at an upstairs window, something remarkable happens: suddenly the whole worlds seems to recede irretrievably, suddenly what had seemed close at hand seems far away, suddenly the illusion of presentness gives way to a vertiginous pastness. No other work so chillingly conveys the mood of suicide. If the materiality of the film image, its closeness to concrete reality, enables De Sica to express love as no other medium can, the ghostliness of the image on the screen enables him to express death as no other medium can.
- 1. Vittorio De Sica, "Hollywood Shocked Me", in Films and Filming 2:5, trans. John Francis Lane (1956): 13.
- 2. Vernon Young, On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art (Chicago: Quedrangle Books, 1972).
- 3. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
- 4. Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).