Dave Stoller rides his bike because he loves to. But he also rides it because he’s got nothing better to do. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, home of the state university, but he’s not a student. The first time we see him—in Breaking Away, playing this Sunday at the Harvard Film Archive—he’s wasting time with his friends, out on the quarry. The college kids call them “cutters,” because their fathers cut the stone from that quarry, and built the school with it. Dave can’t escape that nickname. He can’t escape his parents’ house, either, or his position in the lower class. But what he can do is ride.
There are two championship competitions, but the film—released in 1979—is not another Rocky. Dave’s not using his abilities to try and earn himself a better life. He’s just looking for a respite from the one that he already has. He idolizes his bike, which leads to an infatuation with the Italian culture that birthed it. He starts listening to opera, talking about family values, and even renames his cat “Fellini”—after the director of working-class classics like I Vitelloni. That this film claims such a lineage is astoundingly arrogant. That it lives up to the claim is just astounding.
This is the part of the review where we detail the plot—what connects the first shot to the last race—but Breaking Away barely has one. Instead there’s a series of intersecting subplots: Dave puts on an affected accent to try and win over a co-ed; his friends stoke the preexisting strife with IU’s latest class; his parents try in vain to enjoy a romantic night in. These stories don’t serve separate masters, but all aim to craft a portrait of Bloomington—a patchwork of townie life in Middle America. This is a city symphony for a small city.
The film is directed by the late Peter Yates, who’d already earned a rep for regional specificity. A few years earlier, he’d adapted George Higgins’ seminal The Friends of Eddie Coyle—and in doing so, made the best Boston movie ever. You wretched at the smell of spilled beer as it wafted off the screen during the Boston Garden scenes. He affords the same attention to Bloomington. Tracking shots run down streets to reveal the local hangouts in the background; digressions bring us to local industries and landscapes. Yates shot on location and relied on unadorned camera angles—he let the texture of his chosen setting serve as the main character.
That deliberate unshowiness ends up giving the movie its soul. Yates doesn’t stage the climactic race for tension—he makes a play for transcendence. During the last laps, his camera rests high in the stands, watching Dave glide through the turns like a bird off a strong gust. Yates looks at this kid, and his bike, and his town—the working-class spirit beating loudly within all of them—and he sees grace.
BREAKING AWAY. SUN 5.17. HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE. 24 QUINCY ST., CAMBRIDGE. 5PM/PG/FREE. FOR MORE INFORMATION VISIT HCL.HARVARD.EDU/HFA