Coming from one of the master directors of Italian Neo-Realism, Il Boom (1963) is something of a surprise. Having pioneered a new type of realist film-making casting non-actors in tragic tales of post-war poverty, Vittorio De Sica along with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, produced arguably Neo-Realism’s best known works: Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952). Both feature central male characters traipsing the streets of Rome struggling Sisyphus-like against their lot, only for their efforts to roll them further down in the mire. So for De Sica and Zavattini to collaborate again on Il Boom – a swinging ’60s comedy starring one of Italy’s most famous comic sons, Alberto Sordi – is quite a contrast.
Set at the height of the ‘economic miracle’ of 1960s Italy, Il Boom’s characters are enjoying the high life. The paraphernalia of a new consumerism abounds in plush new high-rise apartments. Rather than scratch around for lousy bicycles, here they drunkenly drive sports cars, wear expensive furs, play tennis, watch horse jumping and dance the twist. Again we have a central male character traipsing the streets of Rome trying to right his money woes. But Giovanni Alberti’s (Alberto Sordi) problem is not putting bread on the table, but paying off the mounting debts his wild life accrues. And with an upper class wife with expensive tastes, friends deserting him, and little business sense, he’s running out of places to turn. That is until he is offered a way out… if only he sells a particular body part to a rich businessman who is missing his.
It doesn’t take long before similarities to De Sica and Zavatinni’s previous works emerge. In fact there’s a moment in Bicycle Thieves where the poor boy and his father enjoy a rare restaurant meal and look over at a rich boy and his family gorging themselves on expensive food, the social divide both evident and assumed. Il Boom metaphorically if not literally takes up the story of the rich family’s life. And their worries, the film shows us, are not always that dissimilar.
Giovanni’s woes hardly rank with the abject poverty of De Sica’s earlier films, and for that reason one assumes he enlisted Sordi’s lovable mugging. But true to form, tragedy remains close at hand. Watching it with modern eyes (no pun intended, if you know the film) you can see similarities with Larry David’s comedy in Curb Your Enthusiasm – you’re made to cringe more often than laugh out loud. It could even have worked as a Neo-Realist piece with a non actor in the main role bemused by his fate. But while it is sympathetic to Giovanni, you get the feeling we’re not supposed to feel too sorry for him. ‘Our wives are used to living in luxury,’ complains Giovanni to his boss in a failed attempt to borrow money, ‘I can’t tell her to give up Christmas holidays in Cortina.’
There are definite belly laughs to be had here, though don’t expect them to come thick and fast. This is no simple slap-stick. Class, homophobia, greed, envy, love are all themes that are touched upon. During a scene on a building site, where De Sica takes the opportunity to document the brave new Italy emerging from the ground in steel and concrete, a worker complains after a near fatal fall: ‘they don’t provide any protection, these bastards.’ It is not, the line implies, the owner’s priority. When we see the owner in his office, he is choosing building materials that are cheap and won’t last. And making billions from it.
Sadly Giovanni doesn’t have the same eye for business. He is part of a new generation of shallow, get-rich-quick consumers of throw-away items, with no real skills other than riding an economic wave – and he’s not even good at that. To that end, Il Boom has something to say for our repentant Il Bust times. An ideal time for its DVD release then (though why no extras, Studio Canal?), and screening as part of Scotland’s Italian film festival on April 18th and 24th.