When Despair Sets In

Umberto D is both optimistic and harrowing

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Nothing happens and everything happens in Vittorio De Sica's 1952 neorealist masterpiece; it's a stark snapshot in which all is revealed about the "daily life of mankind," as the director once offered by way of description. Umberto Domenico Ferrari (played by Carlo Battisti, a former professor in his sole big-screen appearance) is a broke, and broken, retired civil servant whose "family" consists solely of a dog and a pregnant, unmarried young maid who lives across the hall. Unable to make rent or find a single friend with spare change or compassion, Umberto is slowly ground to dust by despair; as the ordinary troubles of daily life build into an extraordinary and seemingly insurmountable anguish, Umberto figures he has nothing left to offer and even less to lose by ending it all. De Sica and longtime collaborator Cesare Zavattini's film is at once optimistic and harrowing; it offers suicide as a solution, but hardly the answer, to Umberto's despair. The film gathers momentum in the dirty details of Umberto's life: the tiny room in which he lives, along with the ants; the meals he steals for his dog; the nasty landlady without an ounce of pity; the shame he feels when he tries to beg for change. It leads to a traumatic, and perhaps even uplifting ending, in which Umberto tries gamely to win back the dog he's betrayed; you wonder, through tears, whether there's hope for either of them, or for any of us.

 
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