Undoubtedly motivated by its poor performance at the box office, and the generally hostile critical reaction it received at the time it was released, Vittorio De Sica’s Il boom (1963) long remained one of the most undervalued of all the films to emerge from the director’s long and fruitful collaboration with screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini. In more recent times, however, the film has found its champions. For example, Italian film historian Enrico Giacovelli has re-evaluated it as not only one of the duo’s finest films but also as something of a minor masterpiece of the commedia all’italiana (comedy Italian style), that particularly mordant form of film comedy that arose in Italy in the late 1950s as a reflection of – and a reflection upon – the profound moral dilemmas and social contradictions brought about by the so-called Italian “economic miracle” (1). Indeed, it appears that Zavattini had written the original treatment for the film a number of years earlier, locating it in the same slum and shantytown setting as the previous and much-maligned Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, De Sica, 1951). But the advent of Italy’s economic “boom” prompted a change of name and setting, and a shift of focus to a rising middle class now frenetically caught up in a race to unlimited affluence and all the glittering prizes of consumer capitalism (2).
Significantly, Giovanni Alberti, the film’s protagonist, impeccably played by Alberto Sordi, who by this time had definitively established himself across dozens of films as the very figure of the Italian common man, is of working-class origins. Giovanni has climbed the social ladder by marrying Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale), the beautiful daughter of a retired general, whom the film makes clear he genuinely loves. His willingness, at all costs, to maintain his wife in the affluent style to which she has become accustomed is, however, unmatched by his modest salary as a small-time business executive. From the very beginning of the film we see him pushed, promissory note after promissory note, ever further into debt. When, following all his humiliating but ultimately unsuccessful attempts at refinancing his loans, and during which he discovers how little he can count on both his in-laws and business associates, he is effectively declared bankrupt, his worst fears are realised as his wife takes their young child and returns to her parental home. All the while, in a desperate bid to climb out of his financial hole, Giovanni has naively been attempting to join what remained the biggest game in town during the Italian boom: building speculation. And it is precisely while attempting to find a financial partner for a rather dubious plan to make a great deal of profit from a building project involving land speculation that Giovanni comes to be placed squarely on the horns of an atrocious dilemma that dramatically highlights the pound of human flesh demanded by the boom in exchange for its consumer delights: millions of lira, yes, but it will cost nothing less than his eye.
The film makes clear that it is his love for the, perhaps, undeserving Silvia that leads poor Giovanni to ultimately accept such a Faustian bargain. But this merely underlines rather than attenuates the perversity of the new moral order reigning in the Italy of the “economic miracle”. Nevertheless, there is a playful and typically Zavattinian humour circulating beneath the appalling terms of the proposal. After all, what the proposal stages is the literalisation of a metaphor. Although perhaps not immediately obvious to a non-Italian viewer, the proposed pact makes literal the Italian equivalent of the English expression relating to something costing “an arm and a leg”, which in Italian is rendered as “rimetterci un occhio”(“to sacrifice an eye”). But what saves this from being merely a pun raised to the level of narrative expedient is the way in which the script continues to play on a metaphorics of the eye, and on seeing and not seeing, throughout the entire film. So, for example, in wisely refusing to play any part in Giovanni’s questionable scheme, Commendatore Blausetti (Ettore Geri), soon to become the prospective beneficiary of the eye transplant, naturally justifies his refusal with the fear that “ci remetto un occhio della testa” (“I’d be likely to lose an eye over it”). This is ironic since, as the camera patently shows at this point, he has already lost an eye. Similarly, the Mephistophelean Signora Bausetti (Elena Nicolai), in the course of making her proposal to Giovanni, enjoins him to secrecy by asking him to pretend that “you have not seen me”. Later she remarks that in the building industry these days one needs three eyes rather than just two.
Well-aligned with Zavattini’s clever script, De Sica’s firm but unflashy direction, dismissed by many critics at the time as merely pedestrian, appears perfectly calibrated to hold the line between sentimentalised tragedy and social farce, providing an evenness of tone that is probably what disappointed many critics craving more visual pyrotechnics in a period when Italian cinema was itself “booming”. Nevertheless, some memorable visual sequences do stand out, first and foremost the crucial scene where Signora Bausetti, after explicitly refusing to beat about the bush, asks Giovanni directly whether he would be willing to sell an eye. De Sica’s direction at this point is nothing less than masterful as the camera darts in a swish-pan from a close-up of Signora Bausetti’s face to a close-up of Giovanni. It is then allowed to effectively mime Giovanni’s own stupefaction by appearing to remain stuck on his stunned and silent expression for a number of seconds. At this point it’s as though the film itself gulps.
But if, in this way, the film ultimately provides a more humane representation of Giovanni than that of the many “monsters” depicted in so many other comedies of the Italian boom – one thinks of the rogues gallery presented in Dino Risi’s aptly titled I mostri (The Monsters) of the same year – the film is nevertheless implacable in its concise but caustic portraits of Giovanni’s fellow would-be travellers on the newly arrived gravy train of the Italian miracle. Predictably, having all refused to help him in his days of desperation they all now voice regret for not having joined him when he appears to have made his fortune. Poor Giovanni, one feels, a minnow in a pool of sharks.
In 1994 Italian left-wing politician and sometime film critic Walter Veltroni, had no hesitation in characterising Il boom as “a real masterpiece, a prophetic film, one of the most future-directed films in all Italian cinema” (3). 20 years later in a post-Berlusconian Italy the film’s uncanny prescience becomes even more evident as Italian dreams of affluence have all been consigned to memory and the boom, if it ever existed, is clearly well and truly over.
Il boom will be screening at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival (31 July – 17 August) as part of a program stream on commedia all’italiana. Find out more and purchase tickets at the MIFF website.
1. See Enrico Giacovelli, La commedia all’italiana, Gremese Editore, Rome, 1995, p. 85. For an extensive study of the form in English see Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, Comedy Italian Style: The Golden Age of Italian Film Comedies, Continuum, New York and London, 2008. However, Lanzoni only ever mentions De Sica’s Il boom in passing.
2. The earlier version of the treatment and idea for the film is discussed by Enrico Giacovelli, Un secolo di cinema italiano 1900-1999, vol. 1, Landau, Turin, 2002, p. 274.
3. Veltroni cited in Giacovelli, p. 275.