Italian neorealism was seen as coming to an end when Vittorio de Sica made Umberto D. De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and Rosselini’s Rome, Open City triggered the film movement, but by the time Umberto D. was released, de Sica’s statement of the end of neorealism went unappreciated. The movement characteristically included an objective camera, true-to-life storylines, social critique, and future prospects beyond the narrative parameters of the film. Umberto D. departs from these criteria in a few ways.
First, the camera moves into subjective mode in a number of places. While observing Umberto in the confines of his apartment, in the temps morts of his quotidian dwelling, the shots are medium and the scenes uneventful. When, late in the film, Umberto looks out the window after hearing the trolley pass, the camera’s quick-zoom at the tracks and cobblestones intimates the thought of suicide. This subjective camera technique ends as quickly as it begins. But as Umberto leaves his neighborhood by bus to find a place for Flike, the shots at the buildings from within the bus again are from Umberto’s point of view, rather than the more dispassionate shots of him and his surroundings.
The realistic nature of the film is in line with neorealism. As others have pointed out, the film never veers into territory that would rob it of its innocence of genre. It could have easily become romance, melodrama, or tragedy, but de Sica avoids those tendencies. The character is neither completely lovable nor completely deplorable. While we sympathize with his plight, often we note that he might improve his situation ever-so-slightly were he to think a little differently. His attempts to pawn off his timepiece to those just as poor as he, his using others at the soup kitchen to feed his dog, and his broken promises and ignored possibilities to be a father figure to Maria all frustrate the audience, who feel he should know better. Particularly uncomfortable is his all-too-healthy posture and movement while buying time at the hospital.
What social critique the film contains is subtle and underdeveloped. The opening scene has Umberto as just one of many elderly faces protesting their measly pensions after years of faithful social work. Olga, Umberto’s landlady, seems to symbolize the state of Italy at the time of the film. Umberto tells Maria (the young maid) that during the war, he gave some of his rations to Olga, who used to call him “Grandpa.” After the war, Umberto tells Maria, Olga “went crazy,” and now harasses him endlessly about his unpaid backrent. Her ascent up the social ladder – marrying the local theater-owner, operatic singing lessons, and remodeling of the apartment, including the destruction of Umberto’s room – has caused her willingly to forget her country’s recent history and discard sensitivity toward Umberto. De Sica was surely illustrating the end of neorealism in Olga: the people had quit acknowledging the sorrows that Italy endured under war and fascism. Better to wallow in the affluence of better times than remember past horrors.
Finally, the film does not end with a clear path for Umberto’s future. Whereas de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief‘s finale was clear and certain, Umberto walks away with Flike down a sidewalk before a group of playing children hide them from view. All that Umberto has decided is that his crisis is not worth suicide. Having regained the trust of Flike, he will continue forward, not knowing what that might entail. In this way, the film is more of an aesthetic parable than a fixed narrative. One could not read a script and grasp Umberto D. It is another example of the fact that modern cinema (post-neorealism) is equal to more than the sum of its parts. It has been said that, in this film particularly, de Sica paved the way for the style of Fellini and Antonioni. Arguably, those directors never ended on a note of certainty, and no story or shot said anything in itself. Shot after shot after shot, however, composes a complete artwork that cannot be broken down and retain its meaning and power.
Notes: Similar opening to Bicycle Thief, first a crowd, then zeros in on one man. Maria sprays/burns ants on wall. From Maria’s cot – shot of cat walking on grating above; identification with stray cat. UD – afraid of living in shelter, afraid of sending Flike to shelter. Tries to beg but can’t; teaches Flike to beg. UD’s distorted reflection in bus below Commendatore, who has skewed image of UD.