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.