The Incredible Shrinking Umberto D.

On January 20, 1952, Vittorio De Sica released his masterpiece Umberto D., and God saw that it was good. It still is. Something more than just another “great film”, it’s one of the loftiest peaks in Italian neorealism, the postwar film movement that tried to draw the shortest possible line between movies and everyday life. To this day, watching Umberto D. remains a full-body experience: what’s at stake for its unlikely protagonist is communicated in such clear and concrete terms that we come to register the minutest adjustments in his emotional coloring. But it’s the film’s conclusion, which manages to be both definitively devastating and hypnotically sphinx-like, that concerns me here.

For those who never saw the film, it’s about the retired civil servant Umberto Domenico Ferrari, who lives in a rented room in Rome not long after World War II—a terrible time and place to be alone in the world. Umberto’s station in life has been drifting downwards for some time, we are made to understand. When we meet him, his only friend is a naïve young housemaid who’s saddled with her own problems; he lags so far behind on his rent that his landlady allows hookers to turn tricks in his bed; and the one thing standing between him and a self-administered mercy killing is his constant companion, a personable but utterly dependent terrier named Flike, who’d be doomed without his master.

The film takes place over the handful of days in which Umberto loses his last toehold on life, and his final descent from have-not to have-nothing takes us into situations that we normally see only in nightmares. De Sica spells out in exacting detail just how much work it takes to be poor: whether he’s trying to sell an old watch that nobody wants to buy or scamming a bowlful of food from a soup kitchen for Flike, Umberto is constantly fighting just to reach the next moment in his existence. When at last he’s reduced to pauper status, he has to force himself to extend his hand for alms, making Umberto D. perhaps the only movie to notice how unnatural the act of begging is.

For the most part De Sica and the great Marxist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini successfully avoid sentimentalizing their baggage-laden hero. For starters, they present Umberto as something of an asshole: it’s implied that he’s partly responsible for his predicament, and he’s much better at asking for favors than he is at performing them. (Carlo Battisti, the linguistics professor whom De Sica chose for the part, projects the dour and hissy personality of an unlovable grandparent.) Likewise, De Sica doesn’t overplay the Flike card, mainly by refusing to acknowledge the canine point of view. In the one instance that he slips up—Flike flinches as a human would at the sight of another mutt being abused—we get a glimpse of the different, more ordinary movie that Umberto D. might have been.

Umberto D. observes the daily life of its characters with the intensity of a jeweler’s loupe. A famous scene, played out in something close to real time, merely watches the housemaid go through her morning routine; in one fragrant shot, still in bed and only half-awake, she watches a cat picking its way across the skylight above her head, in one of those mysterious, ineffably right moments of cinema. De Sica pulls so many of these details together that by the end we seem to be inside Umberto’s world; the critic André Bazin put it best when he said that Umberto D. “makes us aware of what it is to be a man. (And also, for that matter, of what it is to be a dog.)”

Near the end of the film Umberto, now out of options, leaves his house for the last time, intent on finding a home for Flike—in effect, clearing the decks for his own suicide—but the world thwarts both this humble effort and, even more appallingly, his subsequent attempt to kill himself.

Now, anyone who’s sat through the film has to concede that man and dog will soon be dead—in a week perhaps, or perhaps in an hour—and yet if you didn’t know better, you’d think that master and pet don’t have a care in the world as they frolic along that pathway. Even the impact of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, one of the most celebrated downers in the history of art, is cushioned by our knowledge that at the movie’s end Antonio Ricci still has a home, a wife, and his son’s undying love. Umberto, though, is left facing the abyss, and yet in that final shot he displays a vitality, even a joy, that’s visible in no other part of the movie. How can this be? Acceptance is a virtue, God knows, but when you’re on the bricks like Umberto is, acceptance and two-bits won’t even buy you bubble-gum. Umberto and Flike disappear from view, some rowdy schoolboys sail past the camera, and suddenly it’s time to get on with our lives again. But what exactly did we just see? I’ve discussed the subject with friends and read what wise men have to say on the matter, but the most satisfactory answer came from an entirely different movie.

Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man appeared in 1957, and to this day it remains my favorite ’50s sci-fi flick, largely because of its graceful, enlightened ending. Richard Matheson’s story stars another abrasive hero, Scott Carey, who is enveloped in a radioactive mist that causes his body to begin shrinking—first to laughably childish, and finally atomic, proportions. A lot of Shrinking Man’s entertainment value springs from its parade of Brobdingnagian props: straight-pins that double as spears, a mousetrap the size of a minivan, kitchen matches that look like saguaro cactuses. (One of the movie’s biggest jolts comes in a shot of Carey unexpectedly sitting in a chair that fits him, topped by our realization that he’s moved into a dollhouse.)

The earliest threats to Carey come from such common domestic sources—a sour-faced tabby cat, a burst water heater—that it’s like being terrorized by a ficus tree. The scenes in which he’s reduced to the size of a Ken doll and juxtaposed against his strapping, buxom wife discreetly pick at the male dread of impotence, but like Umberto D. it’s ultimately about what happens to a person when lonesomeness becomes a way of life, and Carey’s description of his existence as “a gray friendless area of space and time” could serve as a tagline for De Sica’s movie. It’s only after he’s vanquished a towering tarantula (it straddles the camera in repulsive close-up) that Carey recognizes a deeper enemy, and realizes that he’s already licked it.

“The infinitesimal and the infinite…this vast majesty of creation…to God there is no zero….” As Jack Benny would put it: Well. But while that language may be a little bit gamey, the typical 1950s sci-fi flick was so intent on easing the age’s anxieties that it felt it had done its job once it dropped an A-bomb on its mole men or leech women and blown them back to kingdom come. For Richard Matheson to actually think through the implications of his original idea was an act of artistic largesse, and the image of Carey stepping off into the cosmos with this micro/macro Möbius strip swirling around inside his head only made it that much more generous. Under a title bad enough to make us wither from sight, Matheson would later concoct a sequel to The Incredible Shrinking Man. In it Scott Carey’s wife begins to shrink, too, and joins him in his tiny adventures until, thanks to exactly the type of miracle which the first movie so forcibly rejected, both Careys return to their normal height and retake their place in the world. It’s as if Matheson had set out to prove that the best endings are the ones which open themselves outward to the largest possibilities.

The Incredible Shrinking Man came into the world five years after Umberto D., and in the decades since the two movies’ fortunes have done a dosey-do. Shrinking Man, an instant hit in ’57, was still playing in crowded theaters when I saw it three or four years later, whereas De Sica’s movie, coming at the tail-end of the neorealist cycle, was a notorious flop in Italy. The Minister of Culture, with one eye glued firmly to the wrong end of the telescope, accused it of national slander while the Italian Communist party rejected its pessimism. Today, of course, Umberto D. is one of cinema’s most hallowed titles while Shrinking Man barely rates as a cult movie.

Say what you will about The Incredible Shrinking Man, it helped me to appreciate Umberto D. on a level beyond trite miracles or easy despair. Once he’s regained Flike’s trust with that pinecone, Umberto has done everything that he needs to do in this world. His bags are packed. And like Scott Carey, he recedes into “the infinitesimal”, an invisible world in which the ties that bind man and beast can never be erased—a place where dogs and men bear the same sized souls, and there are no zeroes.

6 Responses to “The Incredible Shrinking Umberto D.”

  1. Leonard Says:

    Man, this is a nice piece of writing, Tom, one that makes me really reconsider both movies. (If I had ’em sitting around.)

  2. Tom Block Says:

    Jesus, thanks! To tell the truth, I’m glad somebody noticed it. This one didn’t get *quite* the number of views that the videogame post got.

  3. annhaycox Says:

    I don’t know how I ended up at your blog (yes, I do, but it’s a long story that begins with Jacob Riis…), but I’m a film fan, too, and this is a nice piece. Well done.

  4. sharon mayberry Says:

    this came to my attention via Despina Vnt on facebook. I was floored. one of those ‘the minute you see it it’s been staring you in the face’ things that are exceedingly rare and so, so precious when one treasures the works discussed. i have so much more appreciating/ discussing I would like to pursue but did not want to let this immediate response go missing, thanks.

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