Among the most savage and surreal of Italian comedies, starring one of the country's biggest stars and directed by one of its legendary filmmakers, Vittorio De Sica's Il Boom barely made a ripple when first released, in 1963. It sank so deeply that it's only now getting a proper release in the United States. Luckily for us, it has lost almost none of its bite.
The title refers to Italy's two-decade period of postwar economic expansion, as rapid modernization and industrialization created a huge new middle class and a generation of upwardly mobile movers and shakers. Giovanni Alberti (played by that great Everyman of Italian cinema, Alberto Sordi) is one of these ambitious spendthrifts, an amiable middle manager up to his eyeballs in debt and utterly incapable of changing his ways. He buys fancy coats and cars to impress his wife, Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale), the daughter of a pious police chief, and spends his time trying to keep up with his fun-loving nouveau riche friends. Early on, we see Giovanni ask a tennis partner to lend him 3 million lira; when the man balks, Giovanni pretends he was joking. At any rate, his pal also claims not to have the money, though we're not quite sure if he's on the level. One of the script's tricks is to keep us guessing whether the people around Giovanni are as wealthy as they purport to be.
Giovanni's ship appears to have finally come in when he approaches one-eyed industrialist Bausetti (Ettore Geri) with a get-rich-quick construction scheme and immediately attracts the attention of the man's wife (Elena Nicolai). Giovanni thinks Mrs. Bausetti wants his body; turns out she wants his eye — as in his literal cornea. And she and her husband are willing to part with a lot of money to take it from him. Dare our hero make the deal? His name's been published in the debtors' register, his wife is getting ready to leave him, and he's about to lose everything — so one might say that the decision has already been made for him.
Il Boom was written by Cesare Zavattini, the great Italian critic and screenwriter who was De Sica's partner for such Neorealist classics as The Bicycle Thief, Shoeshine and Umberto D. It's interesting to learn that the original script, written years earlier, was set in the same desperate working-class milieu as those previous films. The concept still works perfectly in a bourgeois setting, because De Sica and Zavattini nail how money and power infect almost every human interaction; they paint a portrait of a culture in which everything is transactional. It turns out that this doesn't happen only in war-ravaged societies on the brink of collapse. Even in a time of prosperity, everyone's out for himself.
All this is not to suggest that De Sica isn't finely attuned to the specifics of this period. The frame is crowded with brand names, via billboards and bus advertisements and neon signs. (Cinzano! Philips! Kit Kat!) In the background, we often see the giant apartment complexes that sprouted up during the boom years. The film is also something like porn for anyone interested in interiors, whether you like sleek midcentury designs or prefer huge apartments cluttered with faux antiques. And yet there's nothing alluring about the world the movie presents. This is not La Dolce Vita, which two years earlier fascinated viewers with its portrait of hedonistic abandon, and slowly revealed the emptiness and venality beneath. Maybe that's why Il Boom didn't hit it big: It makes no attempt to seduce us; we see the spiritual corruption from the first frame.
The peculiar accomplishment of Il Boom, however, is its ability to blend this sort of overt social critique and the absurdist nature of its story with a genuine affection for its characters. De Sica and Zavattini reserve their fury for situations, not people. We feel for Giovanni, whose humble origins, love for his wife and aspirational qualities mark him as a figure of sympathy rather than ridicule. Similarly, Mrs. Bausetti, despite her bizarre request, comes across as a woman determined to make her husband whole and happy again. Even Bausetti, the wealthy industrialist, feels all too real; he's hesitant about this whole arrangement, and petrified of facing any kind of surgery. De Sica and Zavattini draw both humor and pathos from these figures. It's that combination of qualities — real people caught in a surreal world, reacting in recognizable ways to a society rapidly spinning out of control — that makes Il Boom so vibrant, funny and disturbing.