Umberto D.

Umberto D. ★★★★

Genre Killers (3/31)

Fascism slowly went into a decline by the end of World War II and the two notorious dictators of the conflict able to exert significant control over vital sectors in Europe died two days apart, Benito Mussolini by partisan execution, Adolf Hitler by pistol suicide, yet while the genre/movement within our focus today starts just before these two men’s deaths, the real story does begin proper during their rise of power as Mussolini, contrary to Hitler, was not necessarily opposed to modernist art that would have “degenerated” the classical beauty of his time and instead communicated the youth’s anxious interpretation of the soul, beauty and fear in equal balance. Mussolini’s regime was unquestionably autocratic as any and all government exhibitions required government approval in order to show off and present the artists of their time on display, but the unofficial and at times even challenging art of the time wasn’t suppressed to the lengths of the Nazis and their rampant museum plundering, the content and form was left mostly uncontrolled and as such art movements like the Futurists, Novecento Italiano, and Metaphysical Art were free to explore and exhaust their potential on their own terms (it is important to note, however, that the majority of prominent figures in said movements supported Mussolini and believed fascism would modernize a country divided between the industrial north and rural south, though, in the end they too were labeled as “degenerates” by the ruling Nazi party). The differing backgrounds between the two dictators probably help explain this stark contrast of attitudes between modern art, Hitler of course was a failed artist who was rejected from art school and of course harbored jealousy and resentment towards the other types of students who were succeeding by merits not kosher with the classical beauty he understood (which I mean the main problem with Hitler’s paintings are the same problems with the man himself, they’re very cold, unfeeling, and lack a human soul, when he painted buildings, wasn’t too shabby, when he painted people, hoo boy was he not a people person), while Mussolini was a journalist, reporting on the scene of military and political battles and Marxist meetings while absorbing art and culture as a mere by-stander, being very well-read and presumably an infrequent attendant to galleries and art presentations that would’ve cultivated a deeper understanding of the field. Hitler may have been the better dictator (though having a “body count” in the millions is a very dark interpretation of “better”), but Mussolini was the better person and while the art under his wing was used to espouse his extreme nationalist beliefs, he nonetheless realized that art for the people was better used to “inform” rather than destroy, and what better field of art than the relatively newborn, barely utilized format of cinema.

The films under Mussolini’s interpretation were one guided under an authoritarian style of governing rather than the totalitarian style of Hitler and nearby neighbor Stalin, meaning that rather than controlling all public behavior and the thoughts and opinions of people in their private homes, Mussolini only desired crushing opposition towards the government by controlling outside behavior and letting them have wiggle room for independent thought and opinion. This meant that the intellectuals of Mussolini’s society were not harshly punished (so long as they didn’t incite public opinion against said fascist society), but instead were useful aids and were awarded for pushing the authoritarian regime forward through art. Two types of films were common from Italian film studios from 1922 to 1943 (including those made under Mussolini’s own film studio, Cinecittà, founded in 1937 and nowadays a popular exotic studio destination for film auteurs but, for the sake of this story, will have its relevance be secluded for a second), the first of which being the propaganda films of historical dominance and noble men fighting for their superiors against the enemy in the name of war that were similar to the films of Hitler/Stalin but, crucially, weren’t as naked in their tactics to control the masses due to Mussolini’s relative ambivalence and the lack of unity between political and cinema groups, resulting in the Fascist ideology/cause being an afterthought more than a mandate. The second type of film was the “White Telephone” film, named for a frequent type of prop utilized within these movies that succinctly symbolized both the state of Italian cinema at the aftermath of poor box office results in the 20’s and the separation of culture between intellectuals and the commonwealth. These types of films were lightweight comedies, harkening more often to Hungarian costumes, settings, themes and culture in their content (in part due to being able to circumvent censorship) despite them being purely Italian productions, and focused on the lives of those with great wealth, the type of people who could spend frivolously on an item as luxurious as the white telephone compared to the black model (which was much more affordable and, thus, common), and these films existed almost solely for the sake of distraction and escapism from the average folk under Mussolini’s thumb who needed time away from their reality outside in order to pore over vague sexual politics, broad social relationships, and a little bit of room for some unruliness. Despite the innocuous nature of this genre, the White Telephone movie was its own indirect propaganda, failing to offer any wider or social conflict and avoided all mentions of the working-class life and the reality those outside the streets were suffering that led to a few key disgruntled attendants. Critics in Italy were frustrated with these films, unable to write about politics for the public yet broiling with anger and contempt for the political forces overseeing their home country, and lambasted the White Telephone films for their anti-realism and perpetuating the idealized version of beauty that the fascists across the country sought to upheld by any and all means. Needless to say, once Mussolini was executed, so were the White Telephone films, and the filmmakers of Italy needed to quickly cobble together a replacement genre of film to both rid the stain of his cinematic suggestions and pivot away from the bourgeois that had polluted cinema screens with an incorrect way of life. Luckily, two filmmakers by the name of Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica were already establishing the foundations for a new Italian film movement.

Italian Neorealism progressed in the opposite direction from its German counterpart (Expressionism that sought anti-realism to escape from the emotional pain of WWI rather than seeking realism to embrace the emotional valor of surviving WWII) not just out of creative expression, but also out of total necessity. Western Allies had bombed Cinecittà during a full-scale bombing raid of Rome that lasted over the course of a year, during which time the city had been declared an “open city” (i.e. abandoned of all its defensive efforts for the sake of enemy militaries to occupy rather than destroy its cultural landmarks and harm citizens), something the UK and USA straight-up ignored because, well, Mussolini still seemed like kind of a jerk in the Allies’ eyes. This meant that, once WWII was over, economic and political uncertainty, as well as the destruction of the country’s most prestigious film studios, left Italian filmmakers with little options to make their films and resorted to alternative, unconventional methods to create the types of films the critics and politically-radicalized public needed. No studios meant filmmakers had to film within the rural, rundown cities and create their films on location, and the budgets required to film on location sucked up all available budget, meaning no-name amateur actors, often picked out from said rundown streets, became the stars of this movement as opposed to the affluent actors associated with the White Telephone era (the desire to have actors that also had convincing, realistic dialects in order to create a more authentic cinematic language also helped that decision, but money definitely helps explain quite a bit when considered). Post-facism allowed the everyman to be the protagonists, the people sifting through the wreckage of their hometowns as workers, peasants, pensioners, and retirees now had their stories told in order to critically describe the difficult situations Italy was now enduring thanks to life during postwartime, and though people were free, they were also trapped in poverty and needed to have their voices heard, seen, and felt without the fears of censorship. Visconte’s Ossessione and De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us offered a tonal map towards what the neorealism movement, in all its slippery definitions, would feel like (complete with the posters of these films, their raw, emotional visuals and dark color schemes contrasting sharply with the bright, peppy, Hollywood-esque poster designs of the White Telephone era), but Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, produced, shot, and edited almost immediately after Mussolini’s execution and released four months afterwards, is considered the first film to truly mark the beginning of the Italian neorealism movement, its presentation almost documentary-like in its vision of destroyed Rome, its background characters uncharacteristically novice in their skills, its emotional power searing and unforgettable for those have seen them, the Neorealism movement felt like it was here to stay and was, for a time, considered the ideal antidote to fascist ideology. Film, for the first time in two decades, seemed truly liberated, surely nothing BAD was gonna happen to stop the movement dead in its tracks, right?

…..yeah, about that

Whereas the Germans’ anxiety towards change was based around hopelessness and despair, the Italians’ anxiety towards change was based around prosperity and certainty that things would get better since, after all, no-one could be anywhere near as vile and destructive as Mussolini/Hitler in the foreseeable future and, as such, when the economy started to finally balance out in the early 1950’s, poverty no longer seemed authentic or real anymore for the public and, if anything, became demoralizing to a public ready to move on completely from the side-effects of fascism. What once was an antidote now felt like a genre the average common man, and even a few key filmmakers, sought to escape from, and this is especially prominent come 1951 and 1952, when Vittorio De Sica incorporated fantasy elements into the usual neorealism settings with Miracle in Milan and Renato Castellani found romance and comedy more tantalizing than the typical dramatics found within the genre through Two Cents Worth of Hope. These aren’t deaths of a genre, however, they’re evolutions, they stray further from what the loosely-defined parameters of Italian Neorealism are and yet they still could fit in comfortably within reason to what the movement entails while, importantly, being enjoyed and praised upon release by the Italian public (and both films, incidentally, won the Grand Prix award at Cannes Film Festival, demonstrating that even the worldwide public started to recognize that the grim poverty-stricken days of neorealism held no cultural relevance anymore and needed to expand its palette). The genre’s death comes not from a film that completely did away with neorealism’s meaning in spite of being within the genre, Umberto D. is very much an example of neorealism at its most classic and finest, but instead from a public swiftly outgrowing the genre and finding De Sica’s latest to be a travesty that bad-mouthed Italy and brought shame to a country trying to build up its courage and face the world with pride. Cultural perception and time killed the genre/movement, what once was his greatest strength in films like Bicycle Thieves 4 years prior was now a reason to punish Di Sica for supposedly misrepresenting his country. Vittorio De Sica’s crime was that he made a movie that was just too sad for its own good.

Umberto D. completely bombed at the box office, De Sica reportedly spying on audience members when he could and noticing that people felt nothing or were completely disturbed by their growing confidence in public image being as ruthlessly shattered as it was on screen, and the film soon found several high-ranking opponents that wished nothing more than the film be eradicated and its ideals be expunged from polluting public consciousness. Giulio Andreotti, leader of the Christian Democracy party and also the man who decided where the country’s movie production loans would go, decreed De Sica as a man guilty of “slandering Italy abroad” by “washing dirty linen in public”, ergo making a film that seemed to highlight the worst of the country and dismissing any sense of healthy optimism to help civilians move forward in their hopefulness. Andreotti, being essentially a money-man when it comes to making movies in 1950’s Italy, was a pretty damning critic, as he granted many scripts that were utterly devoid of political subtext with larger sums of money should it appease the state/government, but while his words did mean quite a bit in the bigger picture, it all paled to when the political opponents of Christian Democracy found themselves in shocked agreement that De Sica’s latest only proved to waste time, money, and resources. The Communist Party issued their own public statements and decried Umberto D. for being far too pessimistic and using several of the same reasons to criticize it as Andreotti had, leading to films like The Little World of Don Camillo and the superproductions from Cinecittà studios, refurbished and reconstructed once the war was over, to once again be the proper voice of Italy, in all their blank statements and light fare. With the public, far-left, and far-right opinions all coming to unison to denounce Umberto D., Italian neorealism had no choice but to die with dignity. The problems of the outside world became internalized, searching for knowledge and finding alienation from society, as the films from directors like Michelangelo Antonioni or Federico Fellini would demonstrate, and though some could see Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy as one final swing at neorealism, it too focused more on the inner lives of its central characters, the streets now being utilized not for their unrelenting reminders of the poverty and grief of Italy, but instead to enhance atmosphere and mood for a couple in collapse, dealing with their own problems outside the world in which they inhibited that, two years prior, would’ve swallowed them up whole.

So there we have it, an example of a genre killer without any other film to truly “blame” or consider as additional catalysts, instead being so loathed by everyone that it had no choice but to take the movement down with it. And yet, it changed absolutely nothing about the genre and instead became a victim of a public consensus that simply outgrew it. How interesting.

Modern eyes quickly changed wider opinions from regarding Umberto D. as a failure and instead as a masterpiece of the genre, enduring of desperate times and emotionally unconventional friendship that many can find relatability in. It killed a genre, but it wasn't entirely heartless in doing so, just that it has to break other peoples' hearts in the process.

Umberto Domenico Ferrari is trying to cling on to the only room and board he's known for the past 30 years, only to be trampled on and faced with the grave possibility of eviction from his careless landlord. Unable to make do with the tiny pension paycheck he receives in his old age, Umberto establishes that even a country in a time of supposed economic promise still leaves many of its citizens unable to pay debts and escape their poverty, as the frail man must sell some of his belongings just to gain a fraction of the money needed to pay his rent and finds himself helpless in trying to navigate Italy's loss of human values and the way it treats those pegged with just a few years left without forgiveness, as the landlord refuses to accept partial payments and hides her motivations and renovations behind Umberto's back. It's a film that's loose in story yet rich in character, as Umberto, despite his clear sensitivity and pained hopelessness, is adamant in going through arduous hardships with decorum, unable to sink low enough to beg on the streets and too self-conscious to waste hospital time and resources longer than necessary, and while not having money is his most immediate problem, Umberto's refusal to accept the indignity of poverty is what keeps him living and pushes him further to the brink of death, a contradiction all too fitting given how oppressive his city is and how unlivable his apartment is, and yet, where else could he call home?

Umberto, however, doesn't suffer alone, at least not in the traditional lens of loneliness as while his only two friends aren't any help in paying rent, they're all Umberto's got and the only thing that means the world to him. Maria, housemaid for Umberto's apartment, lives in a similar prism of fear and emptiness, unwilling to risk unemployment from the stringent rules of Umberto's landlord and struggling to hide her growing pregnancy, becoming a kind soul for Umberto to try and rest his should on and being a rare side of decent human nature on account of being just as alone. The only thing that does offer happiness for Umberto is that of his loving, faithful relationship with his dog Flike, strong in their connection on account of Flike being the only thing he can both love and be loved by unconditionally, rarely separated as Flike offers Umberto warmth and devotion to the point that moments where the two are separated suddenly create a devastating panic over the film, a scrambled search through a dog pound nerve-wrecking hoping that losing his only true friend is the one defeat the film has the decency to avoid burdening the poor man with (suffice to say, a dog lover like me who still has trouble letting go of the gut-wrenching memories of watching a four-legged friend die violently in front of me and praying each day nothing happens to the one that's slept by my side for six years, there's a lot of added tension this movie gave me I could've done without tonight). Flike, more than anything, offers Umberto counseling about how life is indeed precious and is worth living in spite of its drawbacks, and though Umberto's struggles don't go away easily, neither does the touching sentimentality between he and his dog staying loyal and caring with one another.

Umberto D. is not at all a case where the film punishes its viewers with unrelenting sadness, it hides motivation and encouragement very well but has enough of a reality-check to recognize that things never go perfectly from humans, hell rarely does life go smoothly nor does the offsprings of humanity offer much of any help, making what little remains seem all the more reliant and treasured in the long run, and in a way in Umberto's quiet desperation lies one of the most authentic truths of life in Italy, and the whole world for that matter, there could be. De Sica wasn't quite done with neorealism even when the rest of his country was, four years after this film came Il Tetto, a film just as equal in its balance of helplessness and a small single light in the distance, but I think it's for the best that he let a genre he kickstarted end on a high note others would eventually appreciate. Quality of this caliber will start to be dearly, dearly missed once I start charting the mysterious deaths of genres further down the line, and De Sica will easily be one of the more competent directors within the mix by a long shot.

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