Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 28, 2009

Umberto D.

Filed under: Film,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 6:52 pm

While at home today nursing a head cold, I happened upon “Umberto D.”, the 1952 neo-realist movie directed by Vittorio De Sica that I knew only by reputation, on the IFC cable channel. I don’t know if IFC scheduled the movie because we are living in a neo-neo-realist period in some respects, but the similarities with 2009 realities were striking.

Umberto D. is Umberto Domenico Ferrari, an elderly pensioner who had worked at the Ministry of Public Works. We meet him and his pet dog Flike at a protest of pensioners who cannot live on their government allotment. After it is broken up by the cops, we follow him back to his furnished room where he is confronted by his landlady who gives him an ultimatum. Unless he pays the back rent, she will evict him. She is looking for any excuse to get rid of him, since she plans to convert two rooms, including his, into a formal dining room.

Besides Flike, Umberto D.’s only friend in the world is the maid Maria, who tends to all his needs save for financial. She is on even shakier grounds than him. She has just become pregnant and will lose her job once the landlady finds out.

De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini defied film convention by refusing to sentimentalize Umberto D. He is has a pinched, desiccated personality that one might associate with a retired civil servant. (He is played by Carlo Battisti, a non-professional with a college teaching background.) Indeed, the character he most resembles is Kanji Watanabe, the elderly civil servant in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (To Live), which also came out in 1952. (Kurosawa, like De Sica, was closely identified with the political left.) After Watanabe learns he has cancer, he decides to spend his last months on earth devoted to helping others. Umberto D., facing eviction and homelessness, is also put to the test. But because of his impoverished status, he can only think in terms of his own survival and that of his pet dog. In the climax of this powerful neo-realist tale, a desperate Umberto D. is forced to seek new owners for Flike as he plans out his suicide.

Such desperation is not limited to post-WWII Italy apparently. Today’s Alternet reports that The Soaring Rate of Abandoned Animals Is the Latest Sign of a Deep Economic Crisis.

Beginning last year and well into 2009, a disturbing media trend emerged, as local news outlets across the country began reporting different versions of the same sad tale: Dogs, cats and other animals were being found abandoned inside and outside of shuttered homes, the “silent victims,” apparently, of the foreclosure crisis.

There were the three dogs found dead in Arkansas that had been locked inside pet carriers without food or water; the “emaciated” German shepherd left chained to a tree in the backyard of an abandoned home in Arizona (he was later euthanized); the starving pit bull in Stockton, Calif., discovered in the wreckage of a ruined house, whose owners had “trashed their home before a bank foreclosed on it.” (One Animal Protective League officer in Cleveland calls this “part of the revenge process: They leave these animals to defecate in the house to destroy the furniture and to urinate on everything to make it difficult for the mortgage company to clean up.”)

As more and more Americans have lost their homes to the wave of foreclosures that has swept the nation, a shocking portion of them, whether due to an inability or an unwillingess to find homes for their animals after being rendered homeless themselves, have simply left their pets behind.

“This has really become an epidemic,” Allie Phillips, director of Public Policy at the American Humane Association told the Detroit News earlier this month. According to her estimates, with some 8,000 houses going into foreclosure every day, from 15,000 to 26,000 more animals are in danger of losing their homes daily.

Not all pets have been left to fend for themselves, of course. After all, most states consider it a crime abandon animals (although such anti-cruelty laws are not strictly enforced). But an untold number have been given up because the owners had no other choice.

The Detroit News tells the story of a woman who came in with her son to give up a 9-year-old purebred Yorkshire terrier after losing their home. “They were just bawling, but they had no place to live,” said Kayla Allen, director of the Michigan Animal Rescue League in Pontiac.

While I would not want to accuse director Kelly Reichardt of plagiarism, it must be said that “Wendy and Lucy”, her own fine contribution to neo-realism, has a plot that is strikingly similar to “Umberto D.”. In Reichardt’s film, Wendy is a young woman living out of her car trying to make to Alaska in search of work, while her only companion is a dog named Lucy. In both De Sica’s “Umberto D.” and her own movie, one of the climactic scenes is a visit to the dog pound to find the lost pet.

After having seen both movies, I can only say that Kelly Reichardt’s does not suffer by comparison. Both “Umberto D.” and “Wendy and Lucy” are available from Netflix and well worth watching in tandem.

And as is increasingly the case nowadays, you can watch “Umberto D.” on youtube in 10 parts.


  1. Sounds like Gabrielle Garcia Marquez was inspired by “Umberto D” insofar as he was broke and living in Paris around 1956-57 when he wrote “No One Writes the Colonel” about the destitute retired Colombian military officer waiting for a pension check that will never arrive due to overthrow of the regime he served. Instead of a dog he struggles for a way to feed his prize rooster.


    It’s not for nothing Marx said most ideas are not new.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 28, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

  2. It’s sad to think of current Italian cinema in the light of “Umberto D”. That character’s life ended grimly, but there were still both good and bad people around him. Two recent films make an effort (with some debt to neo-realism)to pull Italian film-making out of its long sleep. But you’ll look hard for a role model in either “Divo” or “Gomorrah”.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 29, 2009 @ 10:08 am

  3. One of my favorite movies. The music was moving as well. The DVD has some extras that are interesting: an interview with the girl that played the maid and an italian tv documentary about De Sica.

    Comment by Marc — April 29, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

  4. Currently showing in New York, “Il Divo” provides interesting political context for the generation following the one that assumed politcal power in Italy immediately following WWII. Arthur Miller in his overlooked biographical classic “Timebends” illustrates US complicity in keeping the Christian Democrats in power for many decades following the war.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — May 1, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

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