Umberto D. opens on a crowd of older, Italian pensioners protesting the meager payments they’re receiving after a lifetime of work. They’re driven away by the police – herded like sheep, really – and left panting in nearby alleys. It’s a humiliating episode, and only the first to be suffered by the title character.
Umberto (Carlo Battisti) is a retired government worker with few friends and no family. His only true companion is his obedient dog, Flike. When Umberto’s landlady (Lina Gennari) threatens to evict him after 20 years if he doesn’t pay his long-overdue rent, it kick-starts a series of events that brings the older man to the edge of utter despair.
One of the things Umberto D. best captures is the way those who live one step away from poverty can fall into it with a single misfortune. Early on, Umberto falls ill and goes to the hospital; in the meantime, Flike runs away. Retrieving Flike from the pound requires a costly cab ride and the payment of a fine. The money Umberto had scraped together to pay his landlady hadn’t been enough anyway, but now he has barely anything to offer her. It isn’t long before he finds himself wandering the streets, with his attachment to Flike as his only reason to continue on.
Umberto is rich in the very thing most others deny him: kindness.
This sense of hopelessness is echoed by the surrounding milieu, a squalid, scrambling Rome populated largely by hawking salesmen and rumpled beggars. Director Vittorio De Sica, who a few years earlier made another neorealist classic, The Bicycle Thieves, with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, immerses us in this desperation with imagery that’s both expansive and intimate. There are buildings here that seem about to crumble into dust; meanwhile, the shared kitchen down the hall from Umberto is infested with ants, which the beleaguered young maid (Maria Pia Casilio) resignedly tries to chase away with burning paper.
Battisti’s performance is remarkable considering he was a novice actor, though it’s worth noting the way De Sica uses him. Rather than saddling Battisti with much dialogue, De Sica allows his character to be formed through action. One extended sequence – of Umberto rearranging his apartment after his landlady has allowed a dallying couple to “borrow” it – tells us everything we need to know about him: his sense of pride, his demand for decency, his fastidiousness. And in the gentle way he interacts with the maid, we see that he is rich in the very thing most others deny him: kindness.
Battisti also brings some light humor to the part, both in the scenes with Flike and those involving the religious motions Umberto and his fellow patients must go through in order to be cared for at the Catholic hospital. This levity, fleeting as it is, is crucial, especially as Umberto’s options begin to dwindle and he sinks so low as to consider suicide. There’s an astonishing image – especially for a 1952 film largely shot on actual locations – of the distraught Umberto standing within feet of a train as it barrels past him, the dust suddenly engulfing him and obliterating any sense of the real world. It’s a jarring, jostling picture of a man who has been cast into a dehumanizing vortex, largely because of others’ indifference.