The story line of Umberto D. could be the story of any man in any western country caught up in old age by changes he couldn't understand without sufficient resources to survive. Urbanization had loosened family and other ties in Italy and indeed all over Europe, and many men in the post-war period found themselves alone in the city without anyone to turn to in times of personal crisis.
The movie opens with a group of pensioners marching through the streets of Rome demanding an increase in their pensions. After all, a new system was in place after the defeat of the old order and rampant inflation was eating away at their pensions' value. The march was broken up gently by the police and the marchers were ordered to disperse as they had no permit.
Umberto is one of these men and the film chronicles this one man's struggle with the reality of his redundancy. He eats in a soup kitchen (and gives half of his food to his dog) and his daily life revolves around trying to scrounge up enough money to bring his rent payments current by selling off his better possessions. He occasionally crosses paths with old "friends" from better days, but when they learn of his plight, they turn their backs on him.
He can't bring himself to beg. When on the brink of success at his first begging attempt, pride causes him to turn away and refuse what is offered.
He cares most for his dog Flike and for the maid in his ant-ridden penzione who befriends him. None of his half-baked attempts to come up with his rent arrears succeed including his feigning illness in order to be admitted to a charity hospital, thereby saving the meagre soup-kitchen fee for a few days. When he returns home from the hospital and finds his landlady had knocked a hole in the wall of his room, let his dog loose in the street and was planning to make his room part of a larger reception room, he fled and frantically searched for his dog at the pound where it would be put to death if unclaimed.
Reunited with his dog and facing eviction, he felt the only way out was suicide. He even failed at that and momentarily lost the trust of his beloved Flike.
Umberto's plight is tragic, but it is the plight of one who fails to plan for the contingency of old age. He was somewhat a victim of circumstance, but was also a victim of poor choices. When one can barely afford to live, having a pet is stupid. Umberto had no family apparently. Why did he stay in expensive Rome? Why did he not save any money when he was still working as a civil servant? Though his situation is sad, he brought many of his problems on himself. No hankies for me.
What I liked most about the film is its stark aspect. Black and white film accentuates the film-maker's portrayal of the drabness of everyday life in post-war Rome. What I found most surprising is that bus and lorry drivers were prepared to run over anyone in their path who did not clear out fast enough. This was demonstrated several times, once at the beginning where the buses just scatter the pension marchers without slowing and may have been the film-maker's way of portraying man's callous indifference to man.
Carlo Battisti, an untrained actor, gives an excellent performance as the pitiful Umberto. It is actually quite unforgettable. Film fans looking for action and excitement are advised to avoid Umberto D. It is certainly not for everyone, but it is a must-see for foreign film buffs. Four stars.