Il Boom

Italy (1963) Dir. Vittorio De Sica

By the time the 1960’s had arrived Italian cinema had fully made the lateral shift from gritty social dramas to Commedia All’Italiana (Comedy Italian Style). Vittorio De Sica’s Il Boom is a wry look at the economic boom Italy enjoyed in the 1950’s and the change in social attitudes it begat.

Giovanni Alberti (Alberto Sordi) is a small time operator in building construction, a reflection of his feeble business skills. Despite this Giovanni maintains his affluent lifestyle mostly enjoyed by his wife Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale). Because Giovanni loves Silvia so deeply he can’t bear to tell her the truth of his cash flow crisis, nor does he want to deprive her of her luxury.

After many desperate attempts to borrow money from friends and family to get a new project off the ground, Giovanni receives an unusual offer from Mrs. Bausetti (Elena Nicolai), the wife of a wealthy manufacturer, which assures Giovanni all of the money for a significant personal sacrifice in return. Does Giovanni love Sylvia (and his own public reputation) enough to accept this offer?

The parable here is two-fold: how much are we prepared to sacrifice for money and status, how much is a relationship built on such a superficial foundation really worth? De Sica and regular script collaborator Cesare Zavattini focus more of the former in lieu of their country’s “economic miracle”. In fact, the script was originally developed to follow 1951’s poverty tale Miracle in Milan until the prosperous boom prompted the change.   

Where the script directs most of its savagery is towards for Silvia and the so-called friends and business associates who drop Giovanni like a hot potato when his financial status is revealed, a loan from his mother (Felicita Tranchina) being the only thing keeping him afloat. However it is too smart to depict them as cruelly shunning Giovanni through snobbery, the rejections are purely business based, showing no faith in getting a return for an investment.

Silvia is naturally portrayed as the most selfish and shallow of the lot, breaking down in tears and turning to her General father (Federico Giordano) for support. She admonishes Giovanni for humiliating her and not living up to his promise to keep her in a life of luxury (the only reason she married him) and moves back home with daddy, taking their two year-old son with her.

After wallowing alone in self-pity, Giovanni decides to make that fateful phone call to Mrs. Bausetti. So what is this Faustian deal that will make Giovanni rich? Well, Mr. Bausetti (Ettore Geri) lost his left eye after getting some limestone in it and getting a legal cornea transplant is too much hassle so they seek a more convenient – and unlawful – alternative, putting the “cost you an arm or a leg” maxim in a softer light.

Of course the irony isn’t lost on us as Mrs. B tries to convince Giovanni that losing an eye won’t inhibit his life much, begging the question why bother with replacing hubby’s damaged orb? Is hypocrisy another side effect of huge wealth along with vanity, selfishness, arrogance and an inflated sense of entitlement? De Sica seems to suggesting this but this is hardly breaking news as cinema has often depicted the rich in such colours since the early days.

De Sica however uses this not to engender further sympathy for Giovanni, since he is just as complicit with his affluent facade, nor indeed to demonise the people but to chastise this brash and morally abandoned culture they’ve created. Giovanni and his mother are the only representatives of financial paucity in this film, serving as the balance against the explicit world of wealth everyone else lives.

This sharp contrast to De Sica’s usual championing of the underdog may explain why this film was so critically savaged upon its release and its subsequent poor box office performance. Perhaps it was too soon to be so caustic towards the nation’s prosperity or maybe the satire was too mordant for some. De Sica’s usual use of metaphor and allusion is supplanted by a rare bluntness yet punches are still being noticeably pulled.

What drives this plot is the moral dilemma created by an act of desperate deceit born out of vanity in the first place. As Groucho Marx famously said “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member” which in Giovanni’s case meant throwing a huge party after receiving a handsome 20% advance from Mrs. Bausetti just to rub it in the faces of those who rejected him when he was down.

But as much as Giovanni is losing an eye he has effectively sold off part of his soul too. And for what? When Silvia tells him not to question her love for him, where was that love when his bankruptcy was revealed? Perhaps he should have waited a year then The Beatles hit “Can’t Buy Me Love” might have been the wake-up call Giovanni needed!

Effectively this film is a one-man show for Alberto Sordi, physically as cross between Victor Spinetti and Neil Sedaka. A noted comedian this served Sordi well in his portrayal of Giovanni, a fast talking ball of energy who was out of his depth. Yet he could do drama too, as shown in a brief scene with his sleeping son although a moment of pathos isn’t too far away.

Visually the aesthetic is very glossy and vivid while the direction is focused and unfussy, relying less on symbolism but engaging us with nicely composed shots. In terms of imagery complimenting the tone of the dialogue, the interactions between Giovanni and Mrs. Bausetti stand out the most.  

There is something quiet prescient about Il Boom when viewed in a modern context, specifically the inherent problems endemic in gaining wealth. De Sica astutely charts the transience of status achieved through superficial means and the fickleness of acceptance to compromise one’s sense of worth.

An undervalued work from a visionary master.