Short Essay 4
A Man and
On an introductory note, writing one last film-analysis paper was even more challenging than anticipated. For one thing, I repeatedly changed my mind about which film to discuss, and even when I reached a decision, I didn’t know what I most wanted to use for scene analysis. I eventually returned to Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 film “Umberto D.,” which seems almost universally accepted as definitive film of the Italian neorealism movement. I readily admit that I have explored the film before, in an earlier class, but my intent is (and was) to revisit the film in a different way. Last time, my analysis of the film was limited to its role within a trilogy, and so there was little focus on individual scenes as such.
As I watched the film again, I noticed that it is one of those seemingly rare movies that is more meaningful and moving after one has watched it a few times. The movie is a beautifully realized work, and the ending is probably one of the best that has ever been written. But I shifted my focus to a part that deserves more consideration than I first gave it, and now that it isn’t “competing” (for space) with the two other films, I hope to better analyze and appreciate the scene itself, as well as consider its relation to the overall film. All that said, the part in question is the dog-pound scene and the events surrounding it. I add here that my goal is not a complex consideration technical details but just a simple, straightforward look at why the scene is significant and effective.
Umberto Domenico Ferrari is an older, retired man, and Flag is his little dog. Umberto faces eviction from his apartment and does not yet have the money to pay the month’s rent. When he contracts tonsillitis, he decides to stay in the hospital for a few days, because it provides free room and board, and he will be able to save some money that way. He asks Maria, the landlady’s servant girl, to take care of his dog while he’s away. She is pregnant by one of her two boyfriends and will likely be evicted when the landlady learns of Maria’s condition, but she agrees to watch Flag anyway. On returning from the hospital, however, Umberto finds the building is undergoing renovations, and the dog is nowhere to be found.
In his review of the film as one of the “Great Movies,” Roger Ebert points out that this movie is “told without false drama.” In the scenes that follow Umberto’s initial realization that his dog is missing, there is clearly drama, and the scene goes from one of anticipated tragedy to eventual joy, but such scenes—like the rest of the movie—aren’t played to drum up audience reaction. The scenes are there to be genuine.
Consider one of the scenes that leads up to the desperate search at the dog pound: The first indication that something’s amiss is the man’s return to his apartment, where he has lived for so long. Everything is strewn about; painters and other workers are renovating the place; doors have been left open. Umberto’s own room is also a mess, and workers are inside. He sees Flag’s leash hanging alone on the wall, and before he even asks about the dog, we already know the truth, just like Umberto. The dog is gone, “maybe to look for him,” Ebert suggests. The worker doesn’t care: “My job isn’t to look at dogs!” And Elena, the landlady, doesn’t care either; when Umberto whistles and calls his dog’s name, the woman only emerges from her room to see what the noise is about.
There is clearly a theme of suffering in “Umberto D.,” but as the film critic Peter Bondanella points out (in the book “Italian Cinema”), this theme is heightened by others’ inability or unwillingness to recognize others’ suffering. Even Umberto is guilty of this, as evidenced when he goes outside to find Flag: “When Maria’s negligence allows the dog to escape, Umberto scolds her … immediately after she has told her boyfriend about her pregnancy and has been abandoned by him” (Bondanella 66). Umberto is concerned with finding his dog and disregards Maria’s problem. He hurries off and takes a taxi down to the city dog pound.
The scenes that follow, though, are the most important, at least to this discussion. The previous scenes were worth at least a glance because they detail the events leading up to the dog-pound search, and they help strengthen the theme of suffering and indifference, but few parts of “Umberto D.” are as emotional as Umberto’s quest to be reunited with Flag. Roger Ebert calls it a “scene of documentary simplicity” that is wonderful “because the movie doesn’t milk it for tears, but simply shows it happening.”
Shortly after he arrives at the pound, Umberto is given a number and waits in line along with countless other people. As he waits his turn, he catches a glimpse of a dogcatcher’s cart-like vehicle being brought in, and he sees a variety of dogs being removed from the cages. He leaves the line for a moment to speak with a man who is hosing off some machines. Umberto asks if this is where the dogs are killed, and the man silently nods yes, pointing to various pieces of equipment. Like Umberto, we know that such a job surely does not bring joy to the workers, yet it is their job, and they have to do it. The only way to deal with such an unpleasant task is to force oneself to gradually become numb to it and ignore it, and it’s evidenced in the faces of all the workers at the pound. They simply do the appointed task, and their face shows no expression.
Umberto is brought inside to an office, where he’s asked to describe his dog and when it went missing. Next to Umberto is another older man, who is also hoping to claim his dog. The worker behind the counter tells the other man that he must either pay and claim the dog or it will be put to sleep. Umberto watches silently, perhaps even empathetically, but he makes no effort to help the man, who clearly cannot pay the fee. We’re not sure how to feel about Umberto: He doesn’t have much money himself, yet he could have afforded to help the man. We understand that Umberto puts his own situation first, but in a way, he compounds the problem that he himself encounters and complains of—no one will help him. As Umberto is led off to view the recently caught dogs, the other man offers what little money he does have, but the employee refuses and calls for the next number to step forward. The older man’s deeply distraught expression tells us the grim truth: He cannot claim the dog, and we feel the depth of his pain along with him.
The employee leads Umberto down a long row of cages, and Umberto hopes to see Flag in one of the enclosures. The noise of countless barking dogs continues, louder than before. The desperation in Umberto’s face is clearly evident, and the dogs’ barking and unhappy, fearful faces are equally disheartening. Each dog represents not just a lost animal but someone else who is in the same situation as Umberto—missing a beloved pet. But it is the homeless dogs, the strays, that have the least chance of survival, unless they are adopted, because they have no family and no home, and in that way, they too are like Umberto. He too is in a state of entrapment, and the seemingly endless rows of tall cages and cold metal bars suggest to us just how terrible it is to be alone and afraid.
The search through the cages proves fruitless. None of the dogs is Umberto’s little terrier. Another cart full of dogs catches his attention, and he tries to follow it, thinking that maybe his dog is in that group. But the employees won’t stop for him, instead taking the cartful of barking dogs into the gated machine area he saw earlier. The cart is rolled into what looks like a large, black, metal box that is attached to some tubes and other machinery.
Umberto continues to watch as the box is closed, but another employee doesn’t want him around, so he shoos Umberto back to behind the tall gates and firmly shuts them. Umberto can vaguely hear a strange hissing and other mechanical sounds. Umberto’s despair reaches its highest point, because he knows that most terrible truth about the hideous contraption. It is a gas chamber, used to euthanize the unclaimed dogs, and it mirrors Umberto’s situation: He too is like the stray dogs that society does not want and would simply like to rid itself of. The moment is perhaps the most chilling in the film, because we know that this process is so everyday, so automatic, and done to so many that few people at the pound even care. The scene also hurts because we can hardly help but imagine it from the dogs’ minds as well. But Umberto faces this gruesome process in person.
Ultimately, though, the scene becomes one of relief and joy. Umberto is hopeful when he sees another group of just-captured dogs being removed from the cart, and he happens to see that Flag is one of the last ones. It’s a sad moment when we think about it, because Umberto’s recovery of his dog is only one victory out of the masses of unwanted dogs who will not be so lucky. But the reunion is a wonderful one. “Note how De Sica shows them (Flag and Umberto) greeting one another,” says Ebert, reiterating the honesty of the moment. Both man and dog are overjoyed to see one another, and there is a sparkle in the old man’s eyes. As he picks up his beloved dog, Flag yelps as if to say, “I was so afraid… but you’ve come,” and the smile on Umberto’s face as he embraces his dog tells us that everything is all right with him, at least for the moment. In that moment, nothing else matters to either.
Of course, there is more to the story, and Umberto’s troubles will be anything but solved by the time the film ends. At the end of the day, Flag and Umberto have only one another. He accepts the fact that his fate and his dog’s—whatever fate that may be—are one and the same. The dog, Peter Bondanella says, “represents a burden willingly assumed by Umberto” and is “his only link to life” (66), and the dog stands for man’s love for another creature—the last thing he would give up. Ebert adds that Flag “is central to the action—both because (Umberto) will not abandon it by his own death, and because the dog refuses to leave his side.”
I’ve stated before why these scenes, from losing Flag to finally finding him again, are so important and emotional, and that is why I looked at the scenes in the manner that I did. I could have written an entirely different essay solely on shot composition or anything else. But instead, I looked at this from a more subjective, less “organized” perspective, and I tried to simply walk through the scenes in chronological order. Ultimately, I don’t wind up with any amazingly insightful conclusions or the like, but that’s sort of what “Umberto D.” is about: the simplicity of telling a story as it occurs. This film doesn’t have any real conclusion. Part of what we take away from it, though, is the understanding that so many others are in the same position as Umberto, and we should also learn the meaningfulness of sympathy and caring about others, not just ourselves.
For Umberto D. and his little dog, though, things are about much less than that now. Umberto has no work, nor place to live or family to know, and his future is entirely uncertain. It is quite simply Umberto’s struggle to maintain his dignity and to sustain himself and his dog. There is little more that remains than one another’s companionship. That too is illustrated in the dog-pound scene. Roger Ebert said of the man and Flag, “Umberto loves the dog and the dog loves him because that is the nature of the bond between dogs and men, and both try to live up to their side of the contract.” There is little more that remains than one another’s companionship, and the two have the deepest love and respect for one another. The film makes something beautiful out of the most ordinary of events, and it makes emotions ring true by not manufacturing something artificial.
Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New
York: Continuum International
Publishing Group Inc., 2004.
Roger. “Great Movies: ‘Umberto D.’”
Sun-Times: Roger Ebert Movie Reviews
28 April 2002. 17 Aug. 2006. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com>.
Umberto D. Dir. Vittorio De Sica. Videocassette. Joseph Burstyn Inc., 1952.