Il Boom: Beggars and Thieves, by David Bax
Vittorio De Sica’s best known work is Bicycle Thieves, about a working man on an increasingly desperate quest to maintain his livelihood and his ability to provide for his family in a society where even those who manage to get by do so with razor-thin margins. Fifteen years later, De Sica made Il Boom, which tells a similar story. This time, though, it’s a satire and our “hero” is someone we’re allowed—even encouraged—to laugh at.
Il Boom (which is Italian for “the boom”) is about an ambitious young businessman named Giovanni (Alberto Sordi) who, in an attempt to maintain the high society lifestyle he feels he and his family deserve during Italy’s economic upswing, has brought himself to the brink of financial destruction by amassing a crushing debt of which his wife is completely oblivious. In a fantastically empathetic comedic turn (including some great drunk-acting, a pitfall for even the best in the game), Sordi guides us through his humiliating and risky attempts to keep his head above water, eventually uncovering an answer to all his problems that’s as outlandish as its toll is dire.
Much like another European satire from 1963, Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner, Il Boom hides its satire, sharp as a blood-soaked dagger, beneath a deceptively bright and sunny aesthetic. Il Boom, with its glistening, low-contrast aesthetic, has the look of a comedy—which it is. Yet De Sica and Sordi never let you forget that, though you may not see them, there are rain clouds in the distance and they are coming fast.
It would be superficially satisfying to mock Giovanni for his bourgeois hubris and, to be sure, a part of Il Boom‘s mission is to do just that. Yet, if that were the end of it, it would be a cheap and mean-spirited move. But, as De Sica has proven in Thieves and elsewhere, he excels at empathy. One’s concept of despair, after all, is relative to one’s standard of comfort. Giovanni may not understand that his problems pale in comparison to those of Thieves‘ Antonio but he does understand that his very concept of himself is being threatened and that is terrifying. De Sica gets that too and, as a result, so do we.
Over half a century after its initial release, Il Boom resonates. In some ways, that’s because of its timeless messages. In other ways, it would appear to be by chance. De Sica couldn’t have anticipated today’s Boomer/Millennial friction when he had one character, a successful captain of industry, say to Giovanni, “You young people want to make in a year what took us 50.” Then again, maybe it’s just an illustration that such generational complaints aren’t a recent phenomenon (so shut up, Boomers).
Il Boom is not considered a major work from De Sica but Rialto Pictures, with this new restoration and release (opening this Friday in Beverly Hills and Pasadena), are out to change that. The film’s reach may not rival that of Bicycle Thieves but it may be greater than we’ve given it credit for; Giovannia presenting an investment opportunity as a cover for his need for a quick cash injection happens in a remarkably similar way to Jerry Lundegaard’s pitch in Fargo. What really reaches through time, though, is the length and sharpness of Il Boom‘s teeth.