Directed by Vittorio de Sica
Written by Cesare Zavattini
Starring Carlo Battisti
Available to stream on HuluPlus Umberto D. is the story of an aging, down-on-his-luck pensioner in post-WWII Italy. Life hasn’t quite been fair to him, and he must struggle to eke out a living. He has two friends, his dog Flike and a very young, pregnant maid in his building. His money is going fast and eventually he runs out of options. He is too proud to beg, though he tries, and finds himself unable to get a loan, or any kind of break for that matter. In a stroke of luck, he develops a nasty case of tonsillitis and has to be admitted to the hospital. So for a while he is secure, no rent, no worries, an easy life in a comfy hospital bed. Eventually he is released and finds that things have only worsened for him. The story finishes with an ending that is ambiguous in the most satisfying way, a choose-your-own-ending situation, which I adore.
This is a rare kind of film because it manages to find two tones simultaneously. It is both melancholy and uplifting, not in turns but at the same time. This might be hard to imagine, so let me make a comparison. I’ve heard–and let me make it very clear that I don’t know this from experience–that if you drop acid or eat shrooms in a bad mood, you’ll have a bad trip. But if you’re in a more optimistic mood the experience will be much more pleasant. It will have, I don’t know, more rainbows or something. This movie is a little like that, but I don’t think it could ever be a “bad trip”, maybe only a “sad trip”.
I’ve seen it three times myself and it has been different each time. The first time I watched it, I wasn’t in a very happy place in my life. On that viewing, it was a somber reflection on aging and the hardships of simply existing. Several years later, I returned to it and saw it more as a series of silver linings. When things seemed bleakest for Umberto, there were still little joys to be had. I saw it as a message that life will surprise us with happiness when we don’t expect it. Today, I watched it again and I was able to see these tones at work together. This time it said to me, “Guess what? Life can suck, but don’t get used to it. There’s something good right around the corner.”
Umberto D. is so thoroughly sad and thoroughly joyful that I can imagine people 60 years ago watching it in theaters and tearing up for different reasons. It is a breathtaking balancing act of the joys and sorrows of life. It is also perhaps the greatest Italian Neo-realist work, quietly reflecting on the sadness of the era while also spinning a tale to lift the spirits of it viewers.