I’ve been really down this last week. A lot is going on. Work just gets more and more intense — it’s wonderful in its way, but also terrifying. Also, taxes are due on Friday, and things are, let’s just say, complicated because of my marital situation. My natural response to stress is debilitating anxiety followed by depression. So yesterday, I sat down and watched Umberto D. And since that actually has a vaguely happy ending, I watched another of Vittorio De Sica’s classics, Shoeshine. Although in its way, it is an even more positive film, except for the tragic ending.
What is best about great films is that they affect you differently each time that you seem them. And this time I was most taken by the total lack of solidarity in the stories. In both films, there are two people who are alone in the world and care for each other. But they don’t have the power to help each other. Everyone else is just too caught up in their own problems to care about anyone else. This makes sense because both these films were made shortly after World War II. In fact, Shoeshine takes place during the Allied occupation. Umberto D takes place later, but still people are struggling.
All of this is understandable. Wars do this. And one thing that Vittorio De Sica is great about is not vilifying people. Even in The Bicycles Thieves, he provides motivation for the original thief. It is an act of someone trying to get by. And we sympathize and understand the main character’s theft more only because we understand the context of his life more. It is the system itself that alienates us and allows us to see that our needs and desires trump those of other people.
I’ve long maintained that the corporate hatred of unions is really not about keeping wages down and maximizing profits. Indeed, when unions were strong, many companies just matched what union workers were getting to avoid unionization. Similarly, Milton Hershey was very good to his employees, but he fought aggressively against unions. It’s all about control. And the best way for a business to maintain control is by having the employees fighting among themselves. Worker solidarity is extremely dangerous. It could even — Gasp! — lead the workers to think that they could be running the company.
So now we live in a society that lacks solidarity — but only because those in power wish it so. And you see this even in the difference between Shoeshine and Umberto D. Shoeshine was made in 1946 when the issue was that just about everyone was poor. Umberto D was made in 1952, when things are better. And so we get more of a sense of class where the antagonistic landlord sees the old man not with apathy, but with hostility as an impediment to her getting even richer.
It makes me think of what a pernicious idea meritocracy is. It allows society’s winners to see themselves as totally justified in their privilege. And it justifies the destruction of solidarity, because we are not a group but rather just a collection of individuals, each getting what is right and fitting. As such, meritocracy is just a return to aristocracy, but with a different philosophy to justify it.
In general, we don’t see films like Shoeshine and Umberto D. But I think the times are changing, and we will start to see independent filmmakers start to make films that deal with these important issues.