Umberto D and the end of Neorealism

Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D is a film of great significance, not only in its cinematic quality but also in its historical context. Released in 1952 and considered by many to be De Sica’s most prestigious work to date, Umberto D is a celebration of every facet of Italian Neorealism, and is heralded by many critics as the pinnacle of the movement. One such critic was Andre Bazin, who stated that it was “the ultimate expression of Neorealism”, revising his previous claim for De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948)(Grimshaw, 2009).

The sub-genre of Neorealism has a number of qualitative signifiers, both thematically and visually, including the use of non-professional actors, location-shooting and a thematic focus on the plight of the poor and working class. Born as an antagonistic response to the conservative, upper-class “white-telephone” films that were heavily promoted by the Fascist Italian government of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Neorealism resonated with the downtrodden masses, ultimately finding a place as one of the most significant cinematic movements of the 20th century.

De Sica’s neorealist trilogy, consisting of Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, provides an accurate lens into the socio-political environment that spawned these films. By studying the trilogy, it is possible to identify the metamorphosis of the Neorealist movement, simply by examining key elements within them. For example, the ending of each film is indicative of its historical context; Shoeshine ends with the disintegration of friendship between previously codependent characters, reflecting the crumbling post-war dichotomy between the upper and working classes. Bicycle Thieves is the logical progression of this sentiment, openly depicting the harsh, uncompromising circumstances that the working classes were subjected to. Concluding with a loss of innocence, Bicycle Thieves delivers a similar message as Shoeshine, if ultimately more damning.

Each film deals with the primary characters being forced to compromise their principles and ultimately being punished for doing so. The reveal of a secret, the stealing of a bicycle and the act of begging are all actions taken as a result of desperation, which in turn reflects the national sensation of loss after the irreversible effects of World War II.

One of the key elements that separates Umberto D from its contemporaries is its comparatively optimistic ending. As opposed to De Sica’s earlier forays into Neorealism, Umberto D ends with a distinct sense of nihilism. Umberto Ferrari, the aging protagonist, ends his tale by playing with his dog, following a failed suicide attempt which seemingly gives him a new lease on life. Under further scrutiny however, the ending reveals itself to be an self-referential analysis of Neorealism, as Millicent Marcus suggests:

Significantly, 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 of life. (1986, p.117)

For many, Umberto D marked the end of the Neorealist era, as it reflected the contemporary position of the movement, whilst subtly illustrated its less than concrete future. This conclusion was not entirely unexpected however, as Anna Grimshaw (2009) notes in reference to Bazin:

“Bazin was among the first to acknowledge his doubt as to whether there was any future for neorealist cinema once the crisis of the war and occupation had passed.” (2009, p.17)

Neorealism’s role as anarchic contrast to the heavily regimented fascist industry was slowly diminishing, as without the context of wartime occupation, Neorealism lost its relatively apolitical position. This would eventually lead the movement becoming politically motivated, rather than morally, as Federico Fellini explains in an interview circa 1969:

It’s simply a way of looking at the world without preconceptions or prejudices. Some people are still convinced that neorealism should only be used to show a particular type of reality – social reality to be exact. But then it becomes propaganda. (Pasquale, 2013)

Serving as an apt demonstration of the effect that a historical context has on a production, like Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves before it, Umberto D embraces these contextual elements and uses them to enhance and emphasise its subtextual themes. A delicately-crafted product of its era, Umberto D defines, and concludes, the first age of Neorealism.


Bioshock & The Role of the Player

To see this feature in its fully published, fully edited, fully full form, head here:

Recently, whilst discussing the largely fruitless environment of game-to-film adaptations, a friend walked me through his premise for a cinematic reinterpretation of 2007’s iconic Ayn Rand-em-up, Bioshock. He posited that as Jack, the traditionally speechless lead, brutalises his first splicer (Bioshock’s genetically modified cannon-fodder), he should show remorse or sorrow, perhaps even crying as he laments over taking a life.

On the surface, this makes sense. Jack’s introduced to the player as an understated city-slicker, who inadvertently arrives in the Atlantean dystopia of Rapture via plane-crash. Cracking skulls with a pipe wrench is hardly his domain. However, as his role develops Jack gradually morphs into less of a character, and instead serves as a lens to the player. Jack’s lack of personality is reflective of his new environment, with themes of servitude and unquestioning obedience littering the narrative.

Showcasing Rapture and chronicling its turbulent history are all key in developing Bioshock’s iconic sense of tension and depth, and the majority of this information is provided via logs, journals and audio diaries. This potent sense of discovery is what initially elevates Bioshock from standard FPS fare. The rich history is open to interpretation, and Jack’s lack of dialogue or input allows the player to draw their own conclusions. Were Jack to voice concern, elation, fear or relief, Rapture would cease to be the player’s experience and would morph into Jack’s, with the player serving as a secondary audience.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong having an interesting story presented to you directly, the medium of gaming has the unique opportunity to actively engage the audience, allowing the story to bleed through the mechanics. Bioshock understands this and in turn understands that this isn’t the story of Jack; It’s the story of Rapture.

Written as less of a character, and instead as a blank slate for audience projection, Jack is a product of his medium.  Adapting what is an ostensibly silent role into anything else would feel token and forced. This showcases a concrete separation between the mediums of film and game, the mistranslation of which leads to characters with irrational motivations, fractured traits and one-dimensional arcs. Were a film to neglect something as vital as a distinct protagonist, it would sacrifice any hope of audience reflection, leading to utter narrative breakdown. Star Wars: Attack of the Clones anyone?

Bioshock rarely forces the player to make plot-altering choices, the only exception being whether the player chooses to absorb the game’s Adam-hoarding ‘Little Sisters’, or set them free. Moral choice mechanics are ubiquitous within the modern gaming scene, but with the exclusion of a fairly inconsequential alternate ending, Bioshock doesn’t place the onus on the player. Jack is very rarely an operant influence on the narrative, but instead a witness to the atrocities committed by the desperate citizens of a crumbling Eden. Jack is not the catalyst of change, a theme that is expressed though both the mechanics and aesthetics of play. NPC characters in the story meet with overwhelming challenges, and the player sees them, more than often, meet a grisly demise.

This introduces an interesting dilemma though; If Jack is simply a visual surrogate for the player, then who is the player? Certainly not Jack. He’s an enigma, with a shrouded past and an uncertain future, with only a brief vignette of his life revealed to the player. If we’re speaking literally, then the player is Jack’s limbs. Running, gunning and Splicer-stunning. That almost seems too distant though, doesn’t it? Whilst the game doesn’t intend to make the player feel like an inhabitant, they should still feel emotionally invested in Rapture. It resonates with the head, not just with the hands.

Perhaps then, the player’s role is that of Jack’s subconscious, only truly coming into their own as he decides whether to kill, where to go and what to do with little girls.

That sounded better in my head.

With this in mind, the question extends to other genres, games and even mediums. From Pac-Man to Niko Bellic, who is the player? Does the player eat the pellets? Does the player shoot the hookers? Does the player adapt to the game, or does the game serve the player? Even when the player creates a character, do they infuse that character with their own traits, or do they role-play?

Games are the only artistic medium that demands an active audience. A film on a reel is permanent. A novel on a dusty shelf is complete. A painting in the Louvre is timeless. But a game without a player? Incomplete. The player is a crucial part of the puzzle, and although people may differ when analysing the subtext behind a painting, or the themes behind a film, their fundamental experience will never change. Games are different.

Say for example you and a group of friends took a trip to your local cinema. You walk into the building, you make your way to the till, you purchase your tickets, you pay an inordinate amount of money for popcorn, then a passive-aggressive teenager shows you to your seat. You wade through a tsunami of trailers and ready yourself for the journey ahead. Approximately 120-minutes later you emerge bleary-eyed and soda-stained to the muffled tune of the end-credits sequence. There’s a brief silence, punctuated by one of you saying “I liked that bit when…”.

Do you agree, though? Did the scene resonate with you on the same emotional level? Perhaps you felt that Luke’s “Nooo!” was an expression of anger, whilst your friend perceived a reluctant sadness as he defiantly screamed at Vader. You all saw Luke lose his right hand, but perhaps the lefties among you struggled to sympathise. Providing that you all had bladders of steel, each of you experienced the exact same sequence of events, with the only variable being your reactions.

Someone’s experience of a game is just that. Their experience. Games are not only enhanced by audience participation, but demand it. The role of the player is a vital component of the game. The player is not only a witness, but produces what they’re witnessing. The player does more than play, and the audience is more than audient.