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Death of Neorealism: Umberto D

By 1952, the situation in Italy had not gotten any better for the common person. The Christian Democrat party had gained near complete control of the government, resulting in fleeting sympathy for the socialist and communist movements at best. During the early 1950's there was immense pressure of peasant unrest in the agriculture regions of the country and urban society was also disenchanted to a great degree. This complete disillusionment with the new Italian society is presented in De Sica's film, Umberto D, which is generally considered the last film of the original Italian neorealist movement.

It is not surprising then that, like many other films which are associated with the end of a movement, while Umberto D contained elements of formal neorealism--sometimes to a baroque degree--it had also started to turn away from the neorealist style, using the ability to invoke a symbolic nature in things with careful use of the camera. By doing so, it was able to accentuate the statements that De Sica hoped to make. Its baroque nature is typified in the extremely long take of Maria's morning kitchen routine. While watching her futilely attempt to light the stove, flick the water at the ant colony near the sink, or fight to close the door with her foot while grinding the coffee, she makes the viewer aware of the monotony of her life. Her silence as she gazes forward, running a hand over her stomach and thinking about the illegitimate child that will soon force her to lose her job speaks a thousand words about her inescapable tragedy.

De Sica's co-producer and writer, Zavattini, whose notion of realism respected the duration of actual time, encouraged this method of film: "There is a perfect coincidence between narrative film time and that of the protagonist: the director refuses to give any dramatic structure to her mundane activity, respecting every intimate detail of reality equally and making no hierarchical choices between them. The sense of time's duration weighs upon the viewer just as it does upon the maid, and her simple, yet eloquent, gestures require no additional dialogue whatsoever to tell us all we need to know about the tragedy of her life." (Bondanella, 65). It is the realist nature of De Sica's camera work that wonderfully relates the despair that the characters of the film must feel. De Sica's use this realist element makes one acutely aware of the hardship of life in Italy.

But unlike its predecessors, much of Umberto D was filmed in studios, and with this came an ability to manipulate cameras to achieve particularly striking angles that invoked something symbolic in their viewing. Whereas the plight of Ricci is transformed from an individual tragedy to a social problem by the vast number of bicycles, linens, or complaint sheets that the viewer sees in the long take, De Sica goes "beyond simple representation of any 'real' spatial distribution of objects to produce a visual correlative of the loneliness and solitude felt by Umberto." (Bondanella, 64). We see this most notably in the shot of the empty hall outside of his bedroom, which appears sterile, hostile and foreboding. The low angle that it is shot from, and the brightness only at the far end of the hall where the landlady lives, reminds the viewer that the good life is far away from insignificant people like Umberto and Maria. Similarly, the multiple shots filmed through keyholes further emphasize this distance between those who are successful and those who are not. The symbolic nature of this construction parallels the uncaring and cold way in which the landlady treats Umberto who, like everybody else in the film is, more concerned with her own climb to the top than with who she hurts on the way up.

Umberto D in his apartment room that his landlady is slowly destroying to make way for her greater social plans.

Though Umberto D presents many of the same social problems to the viewer, the social ideologies behind them have changed dramatically since Rossellini's Open City, which at this point was nearly a decade old. Whereas Open City had clear cut victims and oppressors, the complex lines between good and bad are even more obscured in Umberto D than in Bicycle Thief. In both, the societal structure of Italy is to blame, but in the latter, one can't help but question whether Umberto is part of the problem too. "Umberto is concerned for his dog and is completely unconscious of her [Maria's] pain, yet he expects others to be sensitive to his problems." (Bondanella, 66). For the first time, the protagonist of our film is shown as a victim and at the same time as part of the society responsible for alienating its individuals. At the soup kitchen where the old men are eating, Umberto is too wrapped up in his own existence (and can one really blame him?) to realize that the men which he hopes he might sell his gold watch to are in fact the ones who are in the identical plight.

In Bicycle Thief, when Ricci was portrayed as being so isolated from society, he was in the end able to turn back to his son and his wife. The unit of family was perhaps the last remaining hope in a world that De Sica had portrayed as almost hopeless. However, in Umberto D there is no family unit for old Umberto to rely upon, and it becomes clear that along with the death of the neorealist movement comes the death of the aspirations that its proponents had for the Italian people of post-war Italy. Unlike Open City and Bicycle Thief : "There is no child at the end of Umberto D to embody the hopes for a better future, there is only an old man whose refusal either to die or to prolong an unviable existence reflects the dilemma of neorealism itself toward the end of its first decade." (Marcus, 117).

Bazin says, "I have no hesitation in stating that the cinema has rarely gone such a long way toward making us aware of what it is to be a man. (And also, for that matter, of what it is to be a dog.)"

It is this loss of hope, this absorption with the individual over society, which was one of the greatest problems that the neorealists saw. Basin sees this best, noting that, "I have no hesitation in stating that the cinema has rarely gone such a long way toward making us aware of what it is to be a man. (And also, for that matter, of what it is to be a dog.)" (Basin, 78).

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