In Umberto D (Sica, Dear Film, 1952), the scene where Maria wakes up in the early morning to do chores utilizes strategic lighting, camera position, non-diegetic sound, and mise-en-scene to illustrate the grim and bleak life of many in post-WWII Italy. The film’s goal to capture a rather harsh and unromantic look at life is considered the Italian neorealism. Umberto D primarily focuses on the hardship that Umberto Domenico Ferrari face every day to have a stable settlement and cope with loneliness. However, Maria’s story also lends itself to portray the bitter life in Italy in that time period nevertheless. The particular scene mentioned does an exceptional job at portraying the theme directly and metaphorically.
The scene opens with a medium shot of Maria lying in her bed barely awake, accompanied by a non-diegetic music that emanates a somewhat slow and somber tone. The music remains throughout the entire scene to convey the notion of both the lack of steady social and financial progress in Italy and the sense of hopelessness for Maria. A few seconds later, the shot is cut to Maria’s point of view. The camera is tilted upwards to shoot black a cat walking by the glass roof. I believe the director’s intention is to allude that someone is always watching. Also, through mise-en-scene, the dirty roof depicts the poor condition of shelters. We are then cut back to a medium shot of Maria reluctantly getting off her bed.
As Maria stands up, the scene is cut to an extreme long shot of Maria from the other end of the corridor. In this shot, we see that Maria’s bed is well-lit and the corridor gets darker as she walks towards the camera while putting on her thin and lousy maid coat before entering the kitchen. The contrast in lighting here suggests that citizens wake up from bright dreams only to return to stark reality. Upon Maria’s entry into the kitchen, we are cut to a medium interior shot facing the door Maria’s entering and it pans to the left to follow Maria inside the room. This shot displays the dirty painted with ants and scratches. Maria wipes the ants with a piece of paper, burns it, and walks towards the window with a hint of curiosity in her facial expression.
We are cut to an extreme long shot from outside the window and the camera zooms in to a head and shoulders view of Maria staring outside blankly. The shot is then immediately cut to view a rooftop with a white cat and the other blocks of apartment. The significance of this shot is vague but it is intriguing that we often see characters in this film looking and staring at something with no clear motif. Perhaps their stares are a symbol of weariness and loneliness. The lighting mechanic here is simple, sunlight from outside the window peaks into the dim room. That can be interpreted as there is room for hope to a brighter future in the sea of darkness. We are then cut back to the previous shot and the camera pans right before we are cut to a medium interior shot again. This shot has the camera pan around to follow Maria around the kitchen.
The final shot of this scene begins with a medium shot of Maria pressing her right hand against her heart and stomach, and the camera slowly moves closer to meticulously present Maria’s face. Her facial expression appears to be very peculiar as she blinks rapidly. This expression struck me as a sudden change of state in her senses. It may be a foreshadowing of an imminent event or simply her paranoia, thus it’s possible that the director wanted to address the worrying thoughts of Italy in that era. In my opinion, this is a superb use of mise-en-scene to subtly unravel a sheer abstraction in the film. The scene then abruptly fades out.
The elements aforementioned adhere this particular scene to the overall theme of the dark and gritty world in post-WWII Italy. After WWII, the basis for everyday lifestyle in Italy was the struggle to break out of poverty and desperation. Life was unforgiving for many and Umberto D is a great piece of work that reflects upon that. Although the film was publicly attacked, it was critically praised for its triumph in creating a realistic look at the struggle wrapped in the package of a deep plot and fascinating characters. Hence, Umberto D is a significant Italian neorealism work which did a great job of promoting its philosophy.