An extraordinary movie, “Breaking Away,” once reached for my soul and lifted it higher and higher in a year where I had descended to the lowest point in my life months earlier trying to escape the prison of depression.
It was a simple movie that first greeted audiences 42 years ago. I remember it as clearly today as when I first saw it. It hearkened back to a more innocent time, although it wouldn’t last. It was as realistic and deeply moving as any film I have ever seen.
A “sleeper” movie, it rapidly caught on in theaters soon after it’s release during those ancient times before streaming and the Internet. It had people literally cheering at the end, imparting a deep-down feeling of — how shall I say it — joy. You don’t see that often in a film, especially nowadays.
It won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for writer Steve Tesich, whose uncannily true-to-life dialog immersed the viewer in the story with gripping fidelity to life. It was about the deepest meanings of friendship and family.
“Breaking Away” takes you by surprise. Many agree that it is a good, even excellent movie, but people have been curious and baffled that it could have such an influence on me. The answer is somewhat unexplainable, really, because it has to do with recovery from depression, and only those who have been into that world of “darkness visible,” as the novelist William Styron described his own descent, can fully appreciate what the movie triggered and symbolized for me.
Years ago, I tried to explain what it was all about to a friend who was puzzled by my enthusiasm, but had watched it out of curiosity to see what it was all about. “It was a very nice movie and all,” he said, “but I don’t understand the attraction it had for you.”
Here is part of what I said in an email reply:
I’m glad you got to see the movie. The question you raised is entirely understandable, because the movie, while quite good, is seemingly not the type of subject that inspires great cinematic art.
I saw it in the fall of 1979 after I had re-established myself in Columbia following that period of depression I mentioned. I was so happy to be alive and free of those heavy chains, that every ordinary event seemeed suffused in a new light. This lasted for some months, through the last third 1979 and into 1980. I’d sit transfixed listening to old songs I’d always liked from the radio. It was like I was hearing them for the first time. I was reaching out and responding to people as never before, or so it seemed. I plunged into photography with a new passion and got re-acquainted with my oldest friends, whom I thought perhaps I’d lost, or else wondered if they had given up on me.
“Breaking Away,” with its jubilant ending, symbolized my recovery from illness. It represented hope, youth, and the future. I was only 28 after all.
It is not the simple story and plot it seems at first glance. It takes you immediately into the life of the main character who is taking on the persona of an Italian exchange student, and it keeps getting more involved until the events later in the movie change everything. You see Dave reconciled with his father, and, as I wrote you earlier, I sought some kind of reconciliation with my own father, with whom I had a lifetime tumultuous relationship, before he died.
In the movie, there was something about the character Dave, played by Dennis Christopher, that just spoke to me very directly. It was his facial expressions, his sensitivity, his innocence, I guess. It all made me think, “What if I had had a friend like that in high school? What adventures we might have had.” (Remember, I didn’t have any close friends in high school). I thought, perhaps, that I was like the intellectual side of Dave, the one who’s going to go to college, going to see the larger world beyond the limestone quarries where his father had worked his whole life, and then I would realize some hidden potential. The friendship between Dave and I would have grown and become very strong…At least that’s what I imagined.
All the characters created a very real world for me…it was a world that was alive with Dave’s enthusiasm, his naive hope in the goodness and fairness of life, but at the same time, it was sad in that the four friends would be leaving each other and growing apart. They were all very different types, those four: Mike, Dave, Cyril and Moocher, yet they seemed to be best friends. They had each other.*
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