DVD Review: IL BOOM (1962)

Call it the Joe Pesci effect. No matter how talented the actor, if they're playing someone who's generally an unlikeable prick you're still making a film that stars, well, an unlikeable prick. Worse still are those movies that make this blatantly obvious, that seem to expect us to revel in how much of an idiot the main character is when most people would turn and run a mile from them. Legendary director Vittorio di Sica's Il Boom (1963) is a beautifully constructed little film, dryly funny, socially conscious, but along with some painfully dated moments its lead is so fundamentally off-putting and his road to perdition so obvious the whole thing feels more than a tad pointless.

Il Boom takes place during the "economic miracle", the period of revival that swept Italy for the better part of a decade, starting at the tail end of the 1950s. Giovanni (Alberto Sordi) is a man out of his depth, struggling to keep up with a country hurling money around left, right and centre, desperate to keep his place in high society even when he knows he can't afford it. Between his wife's taste for the high life and the company he keeps Giovanni is long out of places to beg for yet another loan. But when his attempt to badger a rich businessman into sponsoring his latest wild scheme rolls over and dies, the man's wife offers Giovanni an unexpected way to buy himself out of debt. The question remains, will he take it?

To try and phrase it less like PR waffle, the question is actually more "will Giovanni realise he doesn't really have any choice?" and it's this which on some level makes Il Boom just... profoundly uninteresting. Even someone half-asleep in their seat would realise this is a man completely out of options, and there's just not that much fun to be had watching Giovanni flailing around trying to pretend any different. He's consumed by vanity, by an obsession with status, by an unhealthy need to believe he can buy - that he needs to buy - his wife's affections. There's nothing else to the character beyond this, and where he should be a lovable sad sack he comes across as creepy and not a little repellent instead.

Sordi is excellent in the role, all fragile, overeager grins, flopsweat and spiralling neuroses. He's utterly believable as a man who comes to realise his life was a house of cards all along at the same time as he's watching it teeter increasingly wildly from side to side. It's a minor triumph of sorts that you come to feel a little sorry for him in the early stages. But Giovanni's adoration for his wife is clearly a childish devotion based on a daydream, it's obvious from the first few minutes that he flat out lacks the willpower to leave that dream behind without some kind of drastic outside intervention, and nothing happens to suggest the story's going to have any kind of ending that'd convince you it was worth rooting for the man.

And if the destination doesn't seem worth it, the journey's not much better. Il Boom is funny, but not that funny. It's more a dry, sardonic wit than any outright belly-laughs, as if Di Sica was looking at these people with a sense of ironic detachment even while he was shooting the film. Reflecting on how fantastically self-absorbed contemporary Italians were as they told themselves the summer of '59 was never going to end is all very clever, but it doesn't feel particularly compelling. Add to that a couple of jarring gaffes - maybe Roma's nuovi ricchi really did think it was hilarious to go "laugh at the faggots" (drive past the local rent boys pointing and jeering), but now it just feels painfully dated at best.

Again, Di Sica (best known internationally for the classic Bicycle Thieves) is clearly a master behind the camera. The cinematography looks confident, assured, surprisingly fresh, both the framing and the use of black and white, and much of Il Boom stands up fine in a technical sense. Whole scenes could have been lifted straight out of any high-end period drama from the past few years. While the rest of the cast don't make nearly as much of an impression as Sordi this is largely just because they don't get nearly as much to do. All of them still give rock-solid performances, and the script whips along like a model of economic verbiage - you may not like what it's saying, but it doesn't waste much if any time saying it.

But it's hard to imagine anyone bar cinephiles and amateur history buffs really liking Il Boom. For all the artistry involved in telling Giovanni's story there's virtually nothing to it. Ultimately nothing in the writing says anything more sensational than "People sure are dumb" - late 50s and 60s Italy is a backdrop, for the most part. A very pretty backdrop, but still resolutely two-dimensional. The hero displays little or no warmth or humanity, does nothing to surprise or confound you, and winds up pretty much exactly where you thought he would from the start. Beautifully made, but largely unrewarding, for all the care that's gone into it Vittorio di Sica's Il Boom is very difficult to recommend.

THE DISC:

Studio Canal's UK DVD release of Il Boom - available to buy now - gives the film a bare-bones release in the UK to mark its 50th anniversary. The disc is a pretty cheap and cheerful affair, going straight from the opening logos to a simple static menu which looks fairly ugly but is easy enough to navigate. The film has been divided into eight chapter stops.

AUDIO:

The DVD comes with the original Italian mono track, which is serviceable enough - the audio is a little thin, dry, and the perky, jazzy soundtrack a touch too metallic, but it's clear and distinct without anything to bother anyone's speakers. English subtitles are not burnt in but don't appear to be removable, though they're large, easy to read and seemingly free from errors.

VIDEO:

The picture is good, if not great. The visuals are surprisingly sharp, a very clean, crisp monochrome that's presumably taken from an existing DVD (or a very clean print), with a fair amount of detail. It's pretty soft, though, and shadows and deeper blacks suffer - some exteriors have noticeable fluttering light levels, and night scenes descend into heavy fuzz and grain with large areas of the screen all but vanishing.

There are no extras on the disc.

Il Boom was clearly made by a very able cast and crew, but that doesn't make it much fun. Vittorio di Sica's skill as a director is obvious and his lead actor gives a superb performance, but watching a confused and distressed man dig his own grave doesn't really make for hilarious comedy, however well put together the film is. If you're a fan of the talent behind it or Italian cinema from the period, Studio Canal's UK DVD is a decent, if bare-bones release, but anyone merely curious can probably skip Il Boom safely enough.

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