Notes on “Umberto D.”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

It’s interesting to compare Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 “Umberto D.” with his earlier “The Bicycle Thief.” The latter is very materialistic in outlook and simplified in message, like a propaganda film. Though there’s plenty of “humanity” in it, there’s not much human feeling. Absent his bicycle, the hero is nothing. That’s the movie’s core idea — that he needs his bicycle to be a man. Aside from a few scenes sacramentalizing everyday life (I admire a passage showing the bicycle seeker eating spaghetti with his kid) everything is intended to emphasize this idea. It’s a reductive idea. It’s fitted to the characters like a harness: they’re driven by it. “Umberto D.,” by contrast, is filled with emotional and behavioral complexity; it seems to expand as you watch it, to fill you up. The movie contains moments of cruelty that are so gracefully presented that we’re equally pained and charmed by them. It’s probably the most Chaplinesque movie that wasn’t made by Chaplin. Yet I think De Sica does Chaplin one better because “Umberto D.” has none of Chaplin’s emotional neediness. As the old pensioner whose main concerns in life are his comfort and his dog, Carlo Battisti manages to humanize Umberto’s selfishness. He and De Sica do this so fully that we come to recognize selfishness as an outgrowth of self-respect. If Umberto doesn’t care for his needs (and for his dog), who will? We sense this self-respect most powerfully when Umberto, at his wit’s end, sticks out his palm in anticipation of a handout. Upon being noticed by a passerby, he feels ashamed, and deftly makes as if he’s testing the air for rain. (Again, it’s impossible not to think of Chaplin.) There’s a quiet commentary here regarding the deleterious effect of modernity upon the family, and it’s given additional weight by the normally hyper-familial Italian context. Umberto has no children — and what are the old absent children? The scenes showing the maid of Umberto’s apartment building going about her daily routines are intensely beautiful. I think they exhibit more feeling for the lot of common people than anything in “The Bicycle Thief.”

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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