Film Review: Il Boom

Little-known but timely, stinging 1963 comedy from Italy gets a belated U.S. premiere in a newly restored print at New York’s Film Forum.
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Vittorio De Sica’s canon is a such a mix of light comedy and heavy drama that it is hard to find a unifying element, which is all the more complicated by the fact that the director also frequently acted in other director’s films (most notably Max Ophuls’ Earrings of Madame De…, 1953). For those who only know De Sica for the neorealist classics Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1949) and Umberto D. (1953) or the film he made just before Il Boom, Two Women (1962), this ostensible farce might be a surprise, but the tragic undercurrent that pervades the storyline fits well into the filmmaker’s longstanding left-wing sociopolitical concerns.

The title, Il Boom, refers to the economic boom enjoyed throughout many countries after World War II. The downside of the “Boom” resulted in many families “keeping up with the Joneses” and facing financial difficulties during prosperous times. Such is the setup of this film—and many others before and since, including Hollywood comedies like Half a Hero (1953) and The High Cost of Loving (1958). The difference is that Il Boom more than flirts with the dangers and potential disasters of living beyond one’s means—presaging the seriocomic Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) and The Object of Beauty (1991).

In the screenplay by Cesare Zavattini, a frequent De Sica collaborator, building contractor Giovanni Alberto (Alberto Sordi) realizes his income is not sufficient to maintain his upper-middle-class lifestyle; but his wife, Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale), is uncooperative about cost-cutting, so he is forced to ask for more money from his boss, a request that is turned down. Later, he begs others for loans but again strikes out and then considers suicide. Finally, Giovanni sees an advertisement, and turns to a wealthy older woman (Elena Nicolai) who suggests a bizarre exchange: in return for financial support, Giovanni must donate his cornea to the woman’s husband (Ettore Geri), who is missing this body part. With Silvia threatening to leave him and his friends starting to look down on him, Giovanni must make a very difficult decision.

At the climax of the story, as Giovanni is prepped for surgery, Il Boom edges toward suspense, even sci-fi horror, and the actors never overplay the sequence as it becomes large-scale physical comedy, making the unexpected ending all the more poignant and somewhat chilling. But De Sica, his cast and his crew balance these elements expertly. Sordi makes the perfect hapless hero, Piero Piccioni delivers a spirited yet restrained score, and Armando Nannuzzi shoots the action with a black-and-white austerity that becomes increasingly appropriate. (In a bizarre bit of prescient irony, cinematographer Nannuzzi lost his right eye in an accident while working on a Stephen King film in 1985.)

Lacking the star power of other subsequent commedia all'italiana classics, including De Sica’s own Marriage—Italian Style (1964) with Sophia Loren, Il Boom never received a U.S. release, but in many ways it reflects upon and criticizes American materialist values much more than the majority of Italian imports of the era. Moreover, anyone who has experienced anything like the situation portrayed in Il Boom will find this cinematic rediscovery a cathartic experience.

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