Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"He gave the audience absolutely nothing": Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)

Recent years have seen a proliferation of films centering on elderly people and their struggle to be happy in spite of health problems and low life expectancy. Mainstream cinema has not failed to recognize the potential of stories about old people engaging in passionate and sometimes exotic love (It's Complicated, Marigold Hotel), overcoming social and ethnic barriers (The Bucket List), or pursuing artistic and personal fulfillment in the face of illness and weakness (Quartet). 

A common denominator of such productions seems to be the underlying message that it's never too late for anything, no matter how hard the clinical picture. Moreover, these movies often play with common beliefs about elderly people, who are not supposed to behave and feel the way young people do. We have become accustomed mainly to two stereotypes: the grumpy old man who comes out of his shell and commits to love (Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets) and the adorable old lady who occasionally turns out to be more easy-going and hedonistic than we would expect from a woman that age (a prototype could be Ruth Gordon's character in Harold and Maude). From variations on these two character types originates much of the geriatric comedy we see in film today.

All these stories somewhat exorcize and offer us a consolation from a not-so-enticing prospect that, in the best case, awaits us in the future. But it's not my intention to make fun of those who enjoy this type of entertainment. If you ask me, I'm simply terrified by the idea of one day finding myself decrepit, ill, alone in this world, and financially incapable of even procure myself a mercy killing in a more civilized country than mine. Death is nothing in comparison to this. Unfortunately, watching senescent people preparing weed cakes or engaging in wild sex gives me depression rather than consolation, and I usually tend to prefer movies that maintain a certain level of honesty about the matter.

Which brings us to Umberto D. I guess one couldn't expect an escapist fantasy about old age from the master of Italian Neorealism, but actually Vittorio De Sica's vision not only is brutally honest: it's a nightmare. We are introduced to the life of Umberto Domenico Ferrari, an elderly, rather acidulous man of unremarkable appearance. Once an employee of the Ministry of Public Affairs in Rome, he is now in his retirement. Reversing a much celebrated canon, Umberto doesn't want to live. He wants to survive. He has no secret wish, dream to pursue, goal to reach, nor any ghost of the past to come to terms with before darkness falls. He doesn't even want to be happy. He would just like to be able to pay the rent and provide sustenance to his dog, Flike. But postwar Italy is not the right place to live a retired, peaceful life. There are cruel landladies who don't accept deferred payments, rent out your room to young couples in your absence, and give opera singing lessons while you are trying to rest. There are former colleagues at the Ministry who will loathe your misery despite a decades-long acquaintance, and fellow citizens who for a quiet life's sake will deplore your efforts to fight for a decent pension, and dog catchers who will catch Flike, your beloved little friend, to put him in a gas chamber and let him die, unless you come in time to bring him back home  what home? the deadline to pay the back rent has passed, you don't have a home anymore. But if you're lucky, a young, simple-minded girl who doesn't even know which of the two soldiers she is dating she is pregnant by, will give you some human warmth and kindness, even though you know that this friendship isn't going to last, because she has a future in front of her that you don't have. And maybe a warm-hearted fleshy hospital sister will give you an extra cookie and a big, luminous smile, and a resourceful homeless man will explain you the trick on how to extend your stay at the hospital, so that perhaps you will spare enough money to settle with the landlady, but no, it's too late, you have to pack your stuff and go. There's just no place for you if you are old and alone, not in this age, not in this country.

The screening took place on Tuesday 27th October at the Cinema Massimo in Turin and was introduced by Emi De Sica, daughter of the celebrated director (and sister of the not-worth-a-nail-of-his-father actor Christian De Sica, known to Italian audiences for his cinepanettoni). She confirmed that Umberto D was her father's favorite film in his prolific career, despite it bombing at the box office and being coolly received on its initial release. She recalled that Vittorio used to spy on the audience's reaction in the darkness of theaters, and that on a Sunday afternoon a family  father, mother, two children  were outraged by the film and even asked for the money back, to Vittorio's great mortification. "With Umberto D he gave the audience absolutely NOTHING", said Emi, observing that while, for instance, Bicycle Thieves had its moments of hope amidst the bleakness (like when the young protagonist takes his father's hand at the end), Umberto D instead features a hopeless, bad-tempered old man, offers no final redemption, and presents Italians as a selfish and insular people. No wonder, then, that the film was met with a lukewarm, not to say hostile, audience reception. Angelo Rizzoli, one of the film's producers and also a friend of De Sica, had warned him about the perils of releasing a film so desperate, and would have happily had him direct the less risky Don Camillo instead. After the Umberto D experience, he didn't even want to talk to De Sica anymore. It was a catastrophe. "You'll see, it's a hopelessly SAD film!", concluded Emi to a perplexed audience. 

But I'm afraid I have discouraged you from watching Umberto D, which would be a crime. This is one of those movies you mostly approach to fill a gap in your film culture, but eventually end up loving for what it is rather than for its importance in the cinematic canon. You will find a lot to enjoy here, not least a pronounced black comedy vein that could be easily overlooked amidst all the tragedy. (By the way, the fat-bottomed, full-breasted hospital nun would be right at home in a film by Fellini.) The film has its dramatic moments, too, as it should be, but all is rendered in such a lively manner so as to keep your senses alert just like a suspense movie would do. One of my favorite scenes occurs halfway through the film, as Umberto, in his room with his dog, falls prey to despair and pessimism. The camera looks out of the room's window and zooms in two stories below where a tram is passing by, throwing sparks and clanking along the cobbled street, then cuts again to the room's interior and tilts down from Umberto to Flike. Not a single word is spoken, not a tear is shed. Was there ever a more effective way to illustrate the mental state of a man whose only reason for staying alive is his dog? 

Emi De Sica went on entertaining the full-packed theater with more anecdotes about her father. Vittorio, Emi told, went to America to organize a private screening of Umberto D for Charlie Chaplin. When the film was over, Chaplin looked pensive and deep in thought, and Vittorio was unsure about how he should take his reaction. On eventually asking him how he liked the film, Chaplin broke to tears, and said it was the most beautiful film he had ever seen. 

Vittorio De Sica was apparently a very shy and milquetoast man in private, but transformed himself into, in Emi's words, a "beast" when he was on set, and would have done anything to extort the performances he wanted out of his non-professional actors. The one who had the worst time was Maria Pia Casilio, the actress who interpreted the housemaid, who had lost her mother a few days before the shooting began: when her performance wasn't to De Sica's satisfaction, he would insult her with offensive remarks along the lines of, "if your mother only knew how useless a person you are!"  not exactly the kind of behavior one would expect from a director with a penchant for social issues. This curious fact is perhaps best explained by De Sica's own words: Cinema corrupts everyone.

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