Umberto D.: De Sica’s Refugees From Capitalism

Notes on the Uncurrent Cinema

Still from Umberto D.

Umberto D. opens with a street protest in Rome. The scene is shot from above. As the marchers approach an intersection a city bus cuts through the crowd, indifferent to their presence. The camera zooms in and we see that these are old men, carrying signs and chanting for an increase in their pensions. “I could pay my rent with 20 percent more,” one man shouts. The man is carrying a small dog. As the crowd approaches a government building, the police arrive and begin busting it up. “You have no permit to be here,” an officer says. “You wouldn’t give us one,” says the man with the dog. The old men disperse, hiding in alleys.

The film is by Vittorio de Sica. The man with the dog is Umberto D. Ferrari, played immaculately by Carlo Battisti, even though he couldn’t remember his lines. Battisti was a linguist. Umberto was his first and only role. It ranks as one of the greatest performances in cinema. Umberto and his dog Flicke live in a small room in a building owned by an imperious blond woman who exudes the vibes of Il Duce’s mistress Clara Petacci. The landlady fancies herself an opera singer and she rents out Umberto’s room by the hour during the day for afternoon assignations. The apartment is infested with ants, his bedsheets stained from the sex of strangers. Umberto is so far behind on his rent he can never catch up on his meager pension.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3

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