Refugees From Capitalism: Watching Vittorio de Sica’s “Umberto D.” in a Time of Global Austerity

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.

His only ally in the house is Maria, the young maid, who is stuck in a hopeless situation. Impregnated and abandoned by an Italian soldier, she can’t return home because her father will beat her. She can’t tell the landlady who will fire her. All she can do is sneak leftovers to Umberto and Flicke. The part is resolutely played by Maria-Pia Casilio, who was 15 when De Sica picked her for the role. She’d never acted or even seen a film before. After making Umberto and Terminal Station, Casilio asked De Sica if she should take acting lessons. He said, “Absolutely not.”

By day he and Flicke wander the streets of Rome pleading his case to friends. They avoid him. He sells his watch and his books, the last treasured items of his long life. He feigns an illness and is taken to the hospital for a few days, where he is cared for and fed by nuns. When he returns, Flicke is gone, chased off by the savage landlady, who we later learn was taken in and fed during the war by Umberto. “What do you want from me,” she snarls. “I owe you nothing.” Her fiancée owns the movie theater next door. Umberto is told she is marrying him so she can get in for free. This is a film about debts, moral and financial.

Dogs being loaded into the gas chamber. (Umberto D.)

Umberto makes his way to the pound in search of Flicke, where every day the street dogs of Rome are swept up and caged. There is no shelter here, either. Umberto listens in horror as the man next to him enquires about his own dog, “If I don’t pay 450 lire, you’ll kill him?” There is a stark room next door, where men in dark uniforms and militaristic caps cart caged dogs into gas chambers. The implication is clear. It would have required no elaboration for De Sica’s audience in 1951. A truck pulls up in front of the doors to the death chamber and Umberto spots Flicke being extracted from the truck by a pole and held aloft, struggling like a fish on a line. Umberto rushes to him and frees the dog, a scene which helped give rise to the animal rights movement in Europe.

As Umberto and Flicke huddle near the columns of the Pantheon, the old man spots his former comandante, a well-dressed and pompous man, who asks him: “Do you think there will be a war?” Umberto replies: “I don’t know about such things.” When he and Flicke return to the apartment, it looks as if a bomb has detonated. There are holes in the walls and rubble on his bed. The landlady is making a great room, where she can sing Verdi before her bourgeois guests. The war has indeed begun, the kind of war an economic system wages against its own residents, where you can work all your life and still not afford the basic requirements for life.

Umberto and Flicke have been blasted out onto the unforgiving streets, refugees from capitalism. At one point Umberto confronts an abusive kennel owner, who shrugs it off: “We train them. They get used to it.” “No, they don’t,” Umberto replies. And neither do their human counterparts, under the discipline of austerity.

A version of this essay originally appeared in CounterPunch +.

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