Breaking Away & Seamus Heaney

Back in the days before cable and streaming, when VCRs hadn’t yet been invented, there were a few movies my brother and I would watch every single time they came on television. (Which was maybe twice.) One such movie was Breaking Away. I hadn’t thought about it much in the intervening decades, but one night we watched it again with my boys–who were about the same age as my brother and I when we loved it.

It’s a beautiful film! It’s beautifully filmed! All of the reasons I loved as a youngster hold up to retrospective scrutiny, but as a person who has made films and studied film in the intervening years, I found even more to love about it. It’s deceptively spare and simple in a manner that hides a genius of elegance and grace, which places it in the tradition of Ozu or Rohmer. The only non-diegetic music is a continuation of the Italian songs that a character sings in his attempt to convince the world that he’s Italian. Much of the action seems to happen off-screen, between scenes, in best Ozu fashion. An entire romance and marriage takes place, and we feel real affection for the couple, though we only see them in a few scenes, in passing.

The film was directed by Peter Yates, an Englishman probably best known for Bullitt and The Dresser. It’s the story of four friends living in Bloomington, Indiana in the late 70s. Dave, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher are working class kids, a year out of high school. It’s a sort of in-between time for them, and they’re each putting off the next step. But they’re weighing their options, or lack thereof. They’re trying to define themselves and struggling against those who would define them. Dave, is escaping into a world in which he’s an Italian cyclist. He speaks Italian, sings Italian songs, his patient mother prepares Italian dishes (to the bafflement of his father). And he tries to outride all the forces holding him back, speeding along Indiana highways and back roads on his Italian bicycle.

The film is full of the kind of latent drama underlying every teenagers’ existence. At any minute they might dash their heads on a rock or crash their car or bike, or be crushed by a truck, they might fall out with friends they love, they might tear their family apart. Any of this could happen, and if this was any other kind of movie it probably would, but here it doesn’t, and this makes it feel more real, more like life.

The film glows with a flat, pale, nostalgic light, like a dream of the late seventies, of the mid-west, which people have been trying to capture since in photo filters and iPhone apps. The film is sweet, smart, funny, thoughtful; it’s about infatuation and disillusion and the return of hope. It’s about friendship and family, imperfect and enduring. It’s about freedom and escape, and finding a way to achieve these things without leaving your home.

And it’s about work. The fathers of our four teenage friends were stone cutters, (or “cutters,” to use the derogatory term) they cut limestone out of the quarries, and cut them into smooth rocks to build the local university. And now all they have left is a big hole in the ground where their boys swim, and a college full of teenagers who mock their boys. At one point Dave’s dad says he wants his son to find a job and be miserable just like he was. But we know he doesn’t really want his son to be unhappy, and we know that he enjoyed his work as a cutter: he was good at it, he took pride in his work. The boys have to decide what work they’ll do when the work that made their world isn’t an option any more. They have to make their own new world. Doesn’t it remind you of Seamus Heaney’s Digging?


Between my finger and my thumb 
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun. 

Under my window, a clean rasping sound 
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: 
My father, digging. I look down 

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds 
Bends low, comes up twenty years away 
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills 
Where he was digging. 

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft 
Against the inside knee was levered firmly. 
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep 
To scatter new potatoes that we picked, 
Loving their cool hardness in our hands. 

By God, the old man could handle a spade. 
Just like his old man. 

My grandfather cut more turf in a day 
Than any other man on Toner’s bog. 
Once I carried him milk in a bottle 
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up 
To drink it, then fell to right away 
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods 
Over his shoulder, going down and down 
For the good turf. Digging. 

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap 
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge 
Through living roots awaken in my head. 
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them. 

Between my finger and my thumb 
The squat pen rests. 
I’ll dig with it.

2 replies »

  1. I loved this movie, especially touched by the aspect of the main character aspiring to be Italian and (spoiler alert!) I was so mad when his heroes let him down. One of the loveliest films ever made. Great review and I liked the connection with Heaney’s poem.


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