Italy changed a lot in the years after the Second World War. The country picked itself up from the ruins of war and transformed into one of the world’s largest economies. It went from being a country of bicycle thieves and impoverished shoe-shines to one of il (economic) boom.
Vittorio De Sica’s two best known films, the neo-realist classics Sciuscià or Shoeshine (1946) and Ladri di Biciclette or Bicycle Thieves (1948) movingly chronicle the devastation and poverty of the immediate post-War years. By the release of Il Boom in 1963, the Italian economy had seen spectacular growth since 1951 in a growth spurt christened ‘il boom’. The country had left behind both neo-realism and penury.
Life may have been sweeter for many people but, as we in the 2010s know, il boom is usually followed by il bust. Even if the Italian economy had been able to defy gravity and travel on a one-way trajectory to the stars, Vittorio De Sica would have been there to bring everyone back down to earth. Il Boom, starring one of Italy’s biggest comic movie stars, Alberto Sordi, looks beneath the glossy surface of the economic miracle to the festering truth of the matter.
The round faced, ever-expressive Sordi plays Giovanni Alberti, a dapper businessman who works in construction. At night he drives his beautiful wife Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale of I Vampiri fame) from fancy restaurant to exclusive nightclub in their sportscar and spends the weekend playing tennis and watching show jumping. The trouble with this expensive lifestyle is someone has to pay for it, and Giovanni doesn’t have the money. He’s already up to his eyeballs in debt and none of his friends and acquaintances shows the slightest interest in investing in his get rich quick scheme.
Luckily Giovanni is offered a way out from under the mountain of debt that threatens to engulf his life. The wife of a billionaire offers to pay him big lira if he will agree to sell one of his eyes to her one-eyed husband. Giovanni wouldn’t so much give his eyeteeth to be free of debt, as one of his eyes.
If selling an eye doesn’t only sound macabre, but also slightly ludicrous, that’s because Il Boom is a dark satire. Giovanni isn’t exactly poverty stricken, it’s just that he lives beyond his means. His wife is the daughter of a senior policeman and has certain standards, while his friends and colleagues all seem to expect him to tag along with their extravagant lifestyles. Throughout the film Giovanni is told to cut back on his expenditure, but can’t or won’t.
The principle character in The Bicycle Thieves gains our sympathy because of the implacable nature of his poverty-stricken fate, here we are moved by human frailty. Giovanni Alberti loves his wife and can’t bear to let her down (he fears losing her too), he also doesn’t want to be seen as the merely middle class man that he is. More than anything he just doesn’t have the presence of mind to change. De Sica himself was a prolific gambler who struggled with his finances throughout his life and knew what it meant to be trapped by your bad habits.
Alberto Sordi was so loved in Italy that on his death more than a million people turned onto the streets of Rome to pay their final respects, and his performance here makes it easy to see why he was so popular. Even though he does nothing to help himself, it is almost impossible to dislike this gentle hapless man.
The character of Giovanni Alberti allows us to see through the familiar images of 1960s Italy: the handsome, tanned people and their gilded lives, but he is more than that. Although Giovanni is a creation of his materialistic, consumerist society, but Il Boom is equally a study of the humanity of a flawed individual as well as criticism of society. De Sica knew himself too well for the story to be anything less complex.
The film zips along like an Alfa-Romeo speeding down the Stelvio Pass. There may be a heavy cloud of melancholy and foreboding hanging overhead, but somehow Giovanni manages to cling to the road despite the hairpin bends. Of course, we shouldn’t forget the hilariously pitch-black scenes. Giovanni’s negotiation with the millionaires over the price of his eye and timing of his operation is a particular highlight of gleefully horrifying power play.
Vittorio De Sica is best known as a neo-realist director, but Il Boom shows quite how skilled he was at creating fine films after he had left this approach behind. Giovanni Alberti is an unforgettable character in a very memorable film.