Born during post-World war II, Neorealism was an Italian film movement, signifying a cultural change in the country, characterized by stories set amongst the poor and the working class of the society and discussing sociopolitical turmoil and real world struggles in a way that was never possible under the rule of Mussolini. The exponents of the movement believed that films should be made based on the down to the earth stories and played by non-professionals who embodied their characters. The movement gained international attention when Roma, Open City (1945), directed by Roberto Rossellini, won the Grand Prize at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival, while the harshly honest portrayals of the working class and their enduring struggles came to be known as the cinematic 'golden era' of the country. Considered by many as one of the greatest films ever made, Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952), is one of the most enduring masterpieces of Italian Neorealism, depicting the sad story of an old a man and his struggle to survive in a city plagued by a passive disregard for the post-World War II plight of the elderly.
Most of the actors in the film were non-professional, including Carlo Bettisti, a retired college professor from Florence, who portrayed the title role of Umberto Domenico Ferrari.
Umberto D depicts the struggle of Umberto Domenico Ferrari, a retired civil servant on a fixed pension, which is not sufficient enough to support him, although the cut of his clothes shows that he was once respectable. However, the once distinguished and respected government worker has now no real purpose in this new harsh world of poverty and cruelty. He lives in a small room, infested with ants, but the prospect of eviction from the room, in case of nonpayment of the overdue rent, looms largely on him.
He is an extremely isolated person, who has no one, no son or brother, to help him out. He cannot even bring himself to beg and at his first begging attempt, his pride causes him to turn his palm upside down, as if testing for rain and refuse what is offered. To try it differently, he instructs his dog to sit straight up and hold the hat in its mouth, while he hides nearby.
But the trick could not be continued long enough to yield a fruitful result, as Umberto feels that he cannot demean his dog by making it do something he would not do. His most and only beloved possession is his dog Flike and the only other person he sympathizes with is Maria, the maid of the house, who despite the huge difference of age between them confides in him that she is three months pregnant, but is unsure which of the two soldiers is the father, the tall one from Naples or the short one from Florence.
Although he belongs to the earlier orthodox generation, Umberto is not offended by her polygamy, but is shocked by the trouble sex can bring and cares about her as she cares about him, because they are both good people in a bad place and unwanted situation.
The opening shot of the film shows Umberto Ferrari joining a group of pensioners marching through the streets of Rome demanding an increase in state pensions. As the march is broken up gently by the police and the marchers are ordered to disperse as they had no permit, he showed his anger, not at the cops, but the organizers, as they did not get a permit. Later in the day, Umberto smuggles his small dog Flike into a dining hall where the elderly are given free lunches and quietly slips some food under the table for Flike, while tricking the stern welfare workers by switching plates. However, while walking out with his dog one of the welfare ladies says she saw him feeding his dog from under the table and warns to kick him out, if he tries to do that again. After that, he tries hard to sell his watch to make some money to pay the rent of his room, but unfortunately, people are either not interested or they have one of their own and finally, he gets only 3000 lire for it instead of 4000, before returning to his apartment.
Umberto Ferrari returns to his room to find it occupied by a young couple and learns that the landlady Olga has rented out his room in his absence for an hour to an adulterous young couple to earn extra handsome money. As the situation made him angry, Umberto started shouting at Olga, who told him to stop yelling as it it is her apartment and she has got every right to do anything about it. She also rudely threatened to evict him at the end of the month if he fails to pay the dues in full. Umberto was shocked at her unkind behaviour, because during the war his relationship with the lady used to be nothing less than cordial, she used to call him Grandpa and he gave her some meat from time to time. Nevertheless, he gave Maria 3000 lire that he got in exchange of his watch and requests her to give the money to Olga. But Olga refused to accept the money and told Maria that Umberto owes her 15000 lire and she will not accept any partial payment.
Umberto could not sleep in the night, disturbed by the loud noise from the party arranged by Olga. In addition to that, he had a fever and although it was nothing very serious, he left for the hospital in the morning, before requesting Maria to watch over Flike in his absence. At the hospital, he enjoyed the clean sheets and free meals and wanted to stay for a longer period in the hospital bed. However, despite his complaints about acute tonsillitis and various pains, the doctors found him healthy enough, rejected his request for a longer stay and released him from the hospital. However, when he returns to the apartment, he finds workmen renovating the entire place and his room has a gaping hole in the wall. He is informed by Mary that the landlady is getting married and his room is planned to be a part of her enlarged living room. Mary also informed him that, one day when she went to the hospital to see him, his dog ran away as the landlady purposely kept the front door open. As he heard the news of his beloved dog, Umberto immediately rushed to the city pound and was relieved to find Flike as he was waiting in a cage, along with other barking dogs, for the next truck.
However, although he was happy to get back his dog, he was worried about his inevitable eviction from his room as he failed to get a loan from his friends and he is unable to bring himself to beg from strangers on the street. He, therefore, contemplates committing suicide as his only way out of the situation. But at the same time, he also feels that before taking any such drastic action, he must find a safe place for his dog. In the first instance, he approaches a couple who board dogs, but when it becomes clear to him that they are in the business only for money and many of the dogs kept under their care do not have long to live, he decides against it. He then runs into a little girl in the park and offers her Flike to raise, but the nanny makes her give the dog back. Finally, when Flike runs up to accompany a bunch of playing kids, Umberto slowly backs away, trying to make his getaway and hides under a footbridge. But he fails in his attempt to abandon Flike, as the dog soon runs away from the group to find him in his hiding place.
Finally, in desperation, Umberto holds Flike in his arms and in one of the most touching moments in film history, he walks onto a railway track to face a speedily approaching train. At that moment he loses the trust of his beloved Flike, who becomes frightened, wriggles free and flees. Umberto did not expect it, he feels baffled as he knows that he cannot die without making a safe arrangement for Flike. He leaves the railway track and runs after his dog. However, Flike was doubtful about his master and tries to hide gingerly. But eventually, Umberto coaxes Flike out to play with a pine cone.
With a slight twist of incidents and attitude, Umberto Domenico Ferrari and Flike could be made into a comic film like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. But De Sica did not want that, he holds it in understated pathos. Characters in Chaplin's films were made to be loved, but Umberto does not care if we love him or not and that is why we love him. While a formula film would find a way to manufacture a happy ending, Umberto D depicts what could be a formula story, but not in a formula way. The film was a disaster at the box office and Italy’s neorealist period came to an end with its release. De Sica was also strongly criticised for making the film, allegedly slandering Italy abroad and washing dirty linen in public. However, it was quite popular overseas and while the famous film critic Roger Ebert included it in his selection of Great Movies, it was also enlisted in the 39 Essential Foreign Films for the Young Filmmaker, selected by the American film director Martin Scorsese.