#244. Umberto D. (1952)

My dog Mango is sixteen years old and while the first part of Umberto D., which shows the protest and struggles of the working class in postwar Italy, reminded me a lot of The Bicycle Thief (they’re both directed by Vittorio De Sica), and it’s got the social texture of a Roberto Rossellini movie, either Paisan or Open City, the movie’s third act gets viscerally sad in a flash, very intimate, and compelled me directly to the next room, where Mango was sleeping, so that I could nuzzle up to him and kinda just apologize for nothing in particular.

            That heartbreaking warmth of the last act, and the last scene in particular, is way different from the vibe we get, in the first half, that this is kinda like a statement film, with a touch of character study.

            Our impoverished hero is trying, in these final scenes, to figure out how he can load his beloved dog Flike off with some other owner before killing himself. The eponymous hero, played by Carlo Battisti, doesn’t say much, but shows a whole spectrum of shame and grief and conflict on his face. It’s one of my favorite depictions—and I know this might sound weirdly specific—of a character thinking their way through a problem. Battisti could work this role just as powerfully if it were a silent film. It’s an incredible and heart-twisting performance.

            The issue Umberto’s facing is that he can’t make the rent for his little room in a tenement that’s overseen by a spiteful landlord (a busty woman who rents his room out by the hour, when he’s not around, for young lovers who wanna fuck). The young woman who works as a housekeeper under the landlord’s tyrannous employ confides to Umberto that she’s three months pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is.

            Everyone in this small pocket of the postwar world appears to be struggling.

            Philip Roth’s goal, with his novella The Humbling, was to give a persuasive portrait of how a sensible man might be driven to kill himself. I don’t think Roth really succeeds. But David Foster Wallace certainly does with his short story “Good Old Neon.” And I think Vittorio De Sica, with Umberto D., pulls it off too—but I’m wondering if maybe it says something about me, and about my values, that Umberto’s (1) poverty and (2) advanced age seem to me like grounds for suicide.

            But the reason I mentioned Mango at the beginning is because, even though I shouldered sole responsibility for his care over the couple years between my parents’ divorce and my moving into a place of my own, once we did move out, to this apartment in Little Havana, the responsibility of his care became a way heavier psychic load than I’d anticipated. Prior to that, even though I took care of him, my dad was always there at the house to keep Mango company in case I wanted to stay out late. And he’d fill Mango’s bowl if necessary.

            Now, after an eight or nine hour shift at work, I can’t really go straight from the office to happy hour, or to dinner with a friend, because, well, there’s a hungry little dog waiting for me. But I do occasionally stop to get groceries, or a beer, and by the time I get back to my apartment he’s been alone for ten or eleven hours. And he’s so old. I’m kind of his only friend, apart from my roommate and his puppy, I’m his vehicle for getting out of this room and getting food and the sole provider for all the love he’s accorded on this earth—and I feel like shit when he’s made to languish for so long.

            This is something I’m definitely not comfortable talking about, even here, and while I was watching that third act, where Umberto’s trying to load his dog off because he won’t be able to take proper care fo him anymore…good lord. It’s devastatingly sad.

            First he takes Flike to a boarding house where you can tell that the owners are lying when they say that the dogs all get along, that they get plenty of exercise, plenty of food. Umberto’s prepared to hand over all the money he has in order to keep Flike in their care for a few weeks after his death…but ultimately decides against it. You can see in the nuance of Battisti’s expression that, for the sake of getting it over with, he almost lets himself be talked into what’s clearly a dishonest sales pitch.

            This dude’s performance, man…

            He takes Flike to the park, then, and tries foisting the dog onto a kid who’s always liked him. It doesn’t work. So then he tries just abandoning the dog in the park and…fuck, dude. It’s so fucking heavy.

            Flike sniffs him out, though; refuses to be abandoned.

            Then it gets even darker for a bit.

            It looks like Umberto’s just gonna fucking jump in front of a train with the dog in his arms. He goes, stands on the tracks, the train comes rushing toward them—but Flike flails his way free! Sigh of relief. And Umberto, contrite, goes running after him. The dog is wary, though. Thinks, understandably, that this dude, his best friend in the world, is now tryna kill him. And it’s so weirdly powerful how we project onto the dog’s behavior what must be a crushing sense of betrayal. And we see, opposite that, Umberto’s genuine remorse.

            (A morbid aside: I think Umberto is manifesting here the same psychology of parents who commit murder-suicides of their whole family, believing that the kids are better off dead than orphaned.)

            I remember having a devastating night at the start of the project when I put Mango in his old cage for some reason, I honestly don’t even wanna remember it, but I wrote about it in my piece about C.T. Dryer’s Vampyr. I remember just crying that whole night.

            There’s something about my dog’s trust, the fact that I get home after he’s been alone for nine hours, maybe eleven, and rather than resenting me for being gone all day he’s fucking happy. I can’t explain that. Innocence, I guess. But I feel like I don’t deserve it.

            And there’s something about the fact that my family brought him home when I was eleven years old. There’s a photo somewhere of pre-pubescent Alex cradling this gangly puppy. He was there with me from the first month of middle school then the entirety of high school. The entirety of college. Then the years back home. He was there when my parents got divorced and afterward. He became my ward. He was with me when I moved out of the house and into my first apartment. He’s cuddled on the combined laps of me and every woman I’ve loved. He’s been strolling up and licking the mosquito bites on my ankles for almost twenty years.

            For everything that’s happened to me in the course of what feels like at least my semi-adult consciousness—there was Mango. Dependable and dependent.

            He seems to be healthy now, and he’s certainly happy, but he’s frail as shit. Walks gingerly sometimes. I’m getting emotional even typing this up so I don’t know if it’s something I wanna explore too deeply but I have a feeling his death is gonna be more traumatic than I generally anticipate.

            I’m typing this up at work so lemme just stop here.


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