Italy (1952) Dir. Vittorio De Sica
Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is an elderly retired government worker marching for a better deal for pensioners. When he returns to his tiny apartment he finds that his landlady wannabe socialite Antonia (Lina Gennari) has begun renting his room out for couples to use in his absence.
Since he has little money, Antonia demands Umberto’s rent arrears in full and gives him notice that she’ll evict him at the month. With just his faithful dog Filke and young maid Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio) counting as his only friends, Umberto finds it hard to live up to the bleak future ahead of him.
Another Neo-realist classic from Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves) this film, dedicated to his father, focuses on a different part of Italy’s suffering post war society. Once again the cast is predominantly non-professionals, including leading man Carlo Battisti who gives the fully trained pros a run for their money. Unlike the aforementioned Bicycle Thieves, this is a more bleak and cynical affair but still has its fair share of touching moments, largely built around the unbreakable relationship between man and dog.
Umberto’s life seems pretty miserable from the onset but quickly goes into a downward spiral. Notwithstanding the bullying from landlady Antonio, who is trying to improve her social standing by turfing Umberto out and making the apartment more respectable, his health takes a turn for the worse – not surprising as both his and neighbouring Maria’s rooms are prone to insect invasion and no heating. Umberto spends a couple of days in hospital but when he returns, he finds his room is being redecorated and Filke has run off. Eventually they are reunited but the pressure of having no money and soon to have no fixed abode turns Umberto into a desperate man.
In some ways with his slight weary eyed appearance, Umberto feels similar to Takashi Shimura’ Watanabe in Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru, in the way they both seem to drift along with one eye on their fate with another trying to work out how to avoid it. On both occasions however a last minute burst of inner strength comes via an outside source of inspiration (although Umberto doesn’t die) on this occasion its Filke the dog.
And much like Watanabe has his younger woman, Umberto finds himself also concerned for Maria, the naïve young maid who is dating two soldiers but is pregnant to one; she doesn’t know which and both are denying responsibility. Whilst she seems to take her paltry lifestyle under Antonia’s strict rule, we do get one scene which shows Maria may not be as oblivious to the desperate future which possibly awaits her as she initially suggests.
As a character driven piece it is down to Battisti, in his only film role at aged 70, to carry the weight on his elderly shoulders and he does so with incredible aplomb and naturalness belying his non-professional credentials as an actor. It would take someone with a heart of stone not to sympathise with Umberto or be touched by his never ending plight through Battisti’s acting.
Credit must also go to director De Sica for being able to coax such a convincing and seminal performance out of a man who has never acted before. This might be cheeky to say but Napoleone, one of two dogs playing Filke who did the bulk of the work, was the second star of this film, exuding the same discipline and charm that Uggy, the canine co-star of The Artist displayed some 60 years later.
There’s not much left to say about this film except that as slice of evocative and touching cinema, De Sica once again delivers the goods in a masterful manner.