Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 18, 2017 2:43 pm 
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Grim mockery of Italian materialism

When Il Boom came out in Italy in 1963 it was a flop, and it never came to US theaters. We may be ready for it now. It's as terrifyingly sardonic and harsh as Swift's "Modest Proposal," but its indictment of conformist materialism is timely.

In Il Boom a man pledges to sell one of his eyes to a megarich industrialist to pay massive personal debts he's run up living a fancy lifestyle to keep his posh wife happy. It's some consolation - but not enough - to learn that in Italian "I'd give an eye" is equivalent to saying "it costs an arm and a leg," so it's a metaphor made literal - like Swift.

Some of the direction by De Sica may seem slapdash, or simply flat. The writing by his classic collaborator Zavattini may be hard to reconcile, overall, with the humanity of Bicycle Thief or sweetness of Miracle in Milan. This is because all the focus is on the upper middle-class and someone who aspires to their company. Such people are not looked on with favor here, and they seem to be seen as typical of the time and place.

Whatever its faults and extremism Il Boom is a remarkable piece of work, and however grim at its heart, on the surface it's full of the bright buoyancy of the great movies of commedia all'italiana (comedy Italian style). One can even half see how one Italian critic in the 1990's called it a masterpiece. Its ending is just a bit too quietly chilling, though.

Il Boom refers to the "economic miracle" that buoyed Italians up for several decades after the War, but came to feel increasingly hollow, in the post-Berlusconi era no doubt totally so. Here it's seen as a kind of hysteria of materialism that leads poor Giovanni Alberti (the great Alberto Sordi, in a gigantic performance), a small time building contractor, into heavy debt playing a rich guy to please his fancy wife Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale), daughter of a pompous ex-general, and impress his universally richer "friends" and associates.

At first, and this is when Il Boom is least funny and most sad, Alberti has gotten himself deeply into debt. He is simply going around pathetically asking seemingly everyone he knows, none of whom give a damn, to lend him money. In an extended tennis sequence, his rich opponent just takes the request as simply his own special humor: he's looked on as a jokester, an entertainer. When he asks his employer, in an elaborate, sincere speech, this gentleman simply dozes off.

Finally Alberti confronts a big, scary super-contractor, the large, and one-eyed Signor Bausetti (Ettore Geri), and, next, his battleship wife, as formidable as he (Elena Nicolai). Bausetti brusquely rebuffs Alberti's request for a reference to another contractor he says he has nothing to do with. But Signora Bausetti likes Alberti's healthy and robust looks and invites him to a top-secret tryst. It's not what he thinks, though: she wants to put to him her modest proposal.

After he agrees, he gets a big advance, and gives a huge party. At this point the pathos is replaced by giddy, disturbing hilarity as he gets drunk and winds up insulting everybody. The party, like all the scenes of bourgeois splendor, is staged with impressive glitter. Next morning, the gig is up, and he must report to the clinic. The outcome is not what you might think.

Il Boom, 82 mins., debuted at Vigevano; later Milan, Rome, and Turin. Its US theatrical release by Rialto (in a new 4K restoration) was 16 June 2017 at Film Forum. Coming 21-27 July at Ahrya Fine Arts by Laemmle, Beverly Hills. For other release dates see Rialto.

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