By Blake Backlash
There is a scene in Vittorio De Sica’s Il Boom where a number of well-to-do Italians dance to a band who are performing the tackier sort of early 60s pop song. The lyrics are sung in English. That same quality of a cheap import is imbued in the title of the film. Whereas most European countries created a label in their own language to denote their rapid, post-war economic growth (it is hard to think of a word less German than Wirtschaftswunder), the Italian media co-opted their term from English. ‘Il Boom’ has connotations of something messy and uncontrollable, while at the same time seeming voguish and silly, perhaps even meaningless. Such associations suit De Sica’s satire – which is interested in showing us the empty spaces that might be concealed by the ostentatious sixties prosperity.
Like our own, the Italian boom was financed by an increase in lending and borrowing – and the protagonist of Il Boom, Giovanni (Alberto Sordi), is struggling to cope with his own debt crisis. The film’s opening scene sees him trying to appease the agency he owes most of the money to. All he gets is a rebuke, and as he is being dressed-down, he’s told that he’s not the only one in his position – the agency has lent out to several individuals, from all walks of Italian society ‘even a couple of priests’. The manner in which debt is an open secret, which cannot be acknowledged, invites parallels with more recent Italian economic history: Everyone knows there is a problem, but there would be a crisis if anyone admitted there was a problem; so no-one does anything about the problem; which just makes the problem worse. An early scene sketches this out: Giovanni plays tennis with a colleague and asks for a loan of three million lire. Looking stricken, his colleague tells him he does not have that kind of money. A pause, then both men start laughing – he was joking of course, Giovanni says. His colleague says of course he knew that, he was playing along, after all he does have that kind of money and even if he didn’t he’d steal for a friend. In that case, I really need it says Giovanni, before the cycle of the stricken look, pause, then laughter repeats itself, a little quicker this time.
But is the film interesting for more than what it tells us about Italy then? Well, maybe. Like much satire, it does seem rooted in the time that it is reacting too. And place is important as well, a number of Italian institutions – the church, the military, the family – play a part in the story, and I suspect the film offers a richer viewing experience to those who are familiar with those contexts. And all non-Italian speakers have to submit to the tyranny of subtitles, so the dialogue is robbed of some of the flavour and sharpness it has in the original. Crucially for a comedy, all possibility of the impact of comic timing is lost when entire lines of dialogue, and sometimes the lines that follow them, appear on-screen at the same time. And subtitles tend to root one’s eye to the bottom third of the screen, while some of De Sica’s most striking shots depend on the way he uses cheap modernist buildings in his backgrounds. Really, any true cineaste should insist on only watching foreign films when they’re dubbed!
But something of what the film has to offer survives this and much of that must be credited to Alberto Sordi’s central performance. He can move his face in a way that embodies the idea of the gap between appearance and reality better than anything else in the film. There is a moment when Giovanni visits a wife of a rich industrialist, who says she has a proposal for him that might allow let him leap free of his indebted situation. By the way she’s looked at him, we have probably made the same assumption Giovanni has about what the nature of her proposition will be. Instead, she has designs on his body of a rather different sort. Sordi’s face when he reacts to her proposal is the funniest, moment in the film. And there are times when sadness falls across his face like a shadow, as if a cloud has covered the sun, that poignantly capture the way the anxieties about being in debt worm their way into one’s mind.
The film does seem specific to Italy and her culture – so it was hard for me not to feel something of an outsider as I watched it. I found I was recollecting those films that made-up British cinema’s response to The Boom we had over here. Films like Never Let Go, in which a salesman played by Richard Todd battles a crooked garage owner, played by Peter Sellers, who has stolen his Ford Anglia and sold it for parts. What would an Italian critic make of scenes such as the one where Todd is menaced in a milk-bar by a gang of mod-toughs, led by a half-crazed Adam Faith? If it played in Rome, would something of the films power make it through the allusions to Harold McMillan, the British Empire, and the British obsession with class? Perhaps an Italian audience would just smile at the apparently unintentional echo of one of De Sica’s earlier films – The Bicycle Thief. While Il Boom lacks the dramatic knock-out punch that defines that film’s closing moments, De Sica is still exploring the ways in which money, and the lack of it, can wound human dignity.