“Raise our pensions. We worked our whole lives. We want an increase!!”
When looking for movie recommendations, there shouldn’t be anyone whose opinion I trust more than Martin Scorsese. He’s my favourite film maker of all time, I’ve referred to him on this blog several times before as possibly the greatest living film maker in the world today, and he’s knowledge on classic and world cinema would be pretty hard to top. Yet, it was Scorsese’s own ringing endorsement of Umberto D on My Voyage to Italy that made me reluctant to see it. I was intimidated by his massive knowledge and appreciation for real cinema, scared I might not get Umberto D or understand what makes it so great. But as I was putting together a list of movies for Italy Week, it kept popping up, so I felt like it had to be included, regardless of the intimidation.
Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisit) is marching with a group of retirees, in protest against the small pension they receive. Barley enough to survive on, Umberto is behind on rent, about to be evicted by his landlady, and even has to resort to stealing food to feed his small dog, Flike Returning home from the protest, his landlady informs him that his eviction is official, and unless he came come up with his back rent in the next few days, he’s outta there.
Jumping the gun, she’s already rented his room out for an hour to a couple needing somewhere to conduct an affair. While confined to the kitchen, he complains of his plight to the building’s pretty, young maid, Maria (Maria Pia Casillio). But she has her own problems. After hooking up with two soldiers, she’s pregnant, and neither will take responsibility. While Umberto and Maria sympathise with each other’s problems, there’s just a little frustration from each in the other’s inability to actually help solve them.
Umberto D is a real downer. As it opens, Umberto’s life is in the crapper, through no fault of his own, and it only goes downhill from there for the next 90 minutes. Everyone he meets along the way is pretty much there just to remind us how bad Umberto’s situation is. From old friends who brush him off once they realise that helping him would only be a burden, to the land lazy who would be twirling a moustache if she could grow one. Even Maria, seemingly the only person in all of Rome with any sort of empathy, is also the most powerless to help in any tangible way.
Now that I have seen Umberto D, I understand Scorsese’s enthusiasm for it. The performances are all heartbreaking in the most amazing way, even including the dog. From a technical standpoint, Vittorio De Sica’s direction made me feel like I was in the heart of this oppressive, depressive version of Rome that I’ve never seen on screen before. And while it is a bummer pretty much from top to bottom, Umberto D the movies makes you care so much about Umberto the character from the second he appears on screen, it’s impossible to stop watching and stop hoping for the best for him, even as the best becomes less and less likely.