My grandfather was a quiet man, a tidy little fellow who sat on his front porch on Mifflin St. in South Philadelphia, his vest and shirt buttoned to the top, his chin pointing the way with certainty--and everyone on his block knew they could trust him. And while Grandpop saw through most people, he maintained his own Sicilian counsel; you might guess his approval or displeasure by a shift in the temperature of his look, but that was about all--and often just about enough. While he lived, he worked; and while he knew what was wrong with the world, he let it alone as much as he could.
The little old man in Umberto D. wanders around in my head together with my grandfather, little men passed by, but trying to keep their shirts buttoned--except Umberto is losing everything--home and dignity both torn up beneath his very feet. All he has is Fike, his little dog--"a mutt with intelligent eyes," as he puts it, the two of them children--even younger, it seems, than the pregnant girl he befriends, and whose little round face is often wet with tears. It is a sad world they live in, with a slow approach to the big finish--Umberto deciding to End It All, having kept his own counsel for so long only Fike knows.
The director, Vittorio de Sica, was very good at balancing a commitment to observe life unadorned and a desire to sympathize with those who led the lives he asked us to watch. This balancing act lies at the heart of the Italian neorealists, who wanted so badly to record life--but after all, they themselves lived in Italy, and so could never entirely stop hearing an opera playing softly but insistently in the background, encouraging them to find grandeur in the everyday. Umberto D. so easily reminded me of my grandfather not only because of the little man and the Italian words, but because of de Sica's understanding that we all hear that music rising in our lives, making them more than points on a line, but notes on a staff.
This post is adapted from an entry of The Constant Viewer. (Maybe more xeroxed than "adapted.")