By Jeremy Carr.
Bruno Cortona (Vittorio Gassman) zips along deserted Roman streets in his Lancia Aurelia B24. In search of a telephone, he is a high-speed automotive speck dwarfed by towering housing complexes and businesses. Bruno maintains this frenetic pace whether he’s on foot, in his car, or speaking. He talks fast and barks orders, assuming everyone else is on his own wavelength. He’s a tornado personified, seeming to barge in wherever he goes, making noise, making a scene, making an entrance. According to his estranged wife, for Bruno, the “first impression says it all.” He is also self-obsessed and self-assured, with an apparent disregard for others and with no social filter: “Who’s this fatty?” he asks Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant), whom he just met, picking up a photograph from the stranger’s desk. It’s Roberto’s mother. Bruno’s behavior is marked by reckless irresponsibility, a freewheeling egotism and arrogance that borders on outright charm. “He is, to be blunt, a jerk,” writes Phillip Lopate, “but a strangely sympathetic one.” He likes fast cars and flirting with girls, and his rambling pontifications cover any and every topic that pops into his head. Frankly, he’s a little exhausting.
But the character of Bruno also embodies the dynamism that runs through the entirety of Dino Risi 1962 comedy, Il sorpasso. This was Risi’s 15th feature, after nearly a decade’s worth of documentaries and short films, and it probably remains his most famous and widely acclaimed. Like Alberto Lattuada and Pietro Germi, Risi had his roots in Neorealism, and like these other directors, he was doing what he could to break away from that tradition. Ravaged by war and burdened by 20 years of prior Fascist reign, Italians in the early 1960s were ready to laugh. Neorealism had its place and its undeniable influence, but this “Neorealismo Rosa” expressed its own social commentary with some of the devastation scaled back. A burgeoning modernity was nailing tight the coffin of Neorealist austerity, in the form of pop music, recreational activities, wealth, casual even caustic language, and in the broad sense of a loosened morality. This to say nothing of a physical Italy shown a million miles from the remnants of World War II.
Il sorpasso’s co-writer Ettore Scola refers to Risi’s “light touch,” his ability to coolly turn the critical camera on Italy itself, without any condemnation or contempt; in the finest Commedia all’italiana tradition, Risi points to the foibles and follies of his fellow countrymen, but does so with a pleasant, good humor. Looking at the film years later, Trintignant identifies Il sorpasso as something of an historical film, in that it captures the economic and social state of the nation during a booming era potentially spoiled by a newfound fascination for all things modern and materialistic. As Scola cautions, alluding to the film’s finale, “There’s no boom without a crash.”
Here’s where a more literal translation of the film’s title comes in—”overtaking.” That is, passing, full speed ahead, heedless. And this comes back to Bruno and his bombast. Of course, his bravado is most striking in contrast to others, particularly in contrast to the meek, awkward, and arguably studious to a fault Roberto. In the time spent with this extrovert among extroverts, Roberto’s façade of strained seriousness begins to crack, and his reluctant impatience begins to waver as he comes out of his shell. Roberto isn’t the only one to succumb to Bruno’s ways though; his brash exuberance brings out the same in anyone willing to be complicit in his zest for life. He apparently has a respectable job of some sort, and he can certainly turn on the charm when necessary, yet he comments on others, most notably country folk, with a mocking derision—they dance the “clodhopper twist,” he says. But even then, when he’s at his most acerbic, one does not sense any genuine malice. A surprising moment comes when it’s incidentally revealed, almost as an unexceptional after thought, that Bruno has a wife and teenage daughter. With the introduction of these two also come sudden moral standard—he chides his daughter for dating a much older man and for her smoking.
Make no mistake though, Bruno is hazardous, particularly behind the wheel. It’s mainly played for laughs, as he overtakes other drivers at breakneck speed and drives the wrong way down a one-way street, all while blaring his irritating horn. But the full extent to his vehicular negligence results in the film’s controversial conclusion. Without revealing any spoilers, Il sorpasso’s dénouement is indeed a startling one, which producer Mario Cecchi Gori, for one, was completely against. “It’s a bit cruel,” acknowledged Risi, “but that’s how life is.”
In many ways, it also leaves the audience to rethink the film and everything that came before it, not in the sense of a mystery with its last-minute reveal, but in the way it causes one to flash back to what had transpired over the course of the previous 100 minutes or so. Where had Bruno and Roberto arrived psychologically by this point? Were their respective moments of enlightenment and enjoyment worthwhile? Are they, in these final moments, satisfied with life? The ending is undeniably the film’s most unsettling sequence, due to its abrupt change in tone and the shockingly tragic halt in the picture’s general merriment. Its significance remains up for debate. Lopate, in his essay, “Il sorpasso: The Joys of Disillusionment,” says in light of the conclusion, “it would be wrong to interpret the film as a morality tale,” yet in his article, “Il sorpasso: Italy, Dark and Light,” Antonio Monda argues that by the end of the film, “Il sorpasso reveals itself to be a harsh, uncomfortable moral fable.” Similarly, Rémi Fournier Lanzoni speaks of Il sorpasso’s dual indictment: On the one hand, ridiculing to a degree the pre-planning, stagnant, conformist tradition of Roberto; on the other, clearly deriding the frivolous and avaricious life of the more modern individuals.
As a road trip film, an exemplary modern cinematic model in itself, Il sorpasso is a breezy, scenic tour of the Italian countryside on the Assumption holiday, shot in gorgeous detail by Alfio Contini. In this by now familiar form, the trope of self-discovery is expected, as is its episodic structure (episodic here, yes, but exceptionally aimless—a largely improvisational adventure). In a brilliantly subtle tonal shift, Bruno even starts to question himself to a certain extent. He, like Roberto, is at something of an existential crossroads. Both men maintain a still lingering youth that hasn’t quite caught up with adulthood, and their respective solitude has them each reflecting on an acute identity crisis. As night falls, Risi takes an understated and precarious breath from the overkill as Roberto and Bruno discuss these issues, each acknowledging their own shortcomings (Bruno considers himself a “stray dog”). But this sober introspection is short lived, and though Gassman in particular does an extraordinary job of changing the tenor of the film, which is remarkable given just how high-pitched he is otherwise, we know such a deviation is fleeting.
Aside from these scenes of explicit contemplation, Risi remains generally unobtrusive. His camera placement is optimal for the action—well composed but rarely self-conscious—and the imagery is frequently quite picturesque as he chronicles this impromptu Italian travelogue. When set on the performers, especially Gassman, he films frontally, with an almost deadpan camera placement: Here’s what’s happening. Look at it. Can you believe this guy? Let’s just let it play out. Still though, Risi imbues in the film a strong Italian personality, with an authentic cinematic taste of the region. Moreover, he likewise packs the picture with strong Italian personalities, single shots occupied by all sorts of people, some highlighted for occasionally imprecise reasons, some simply on the periphery of the primary drama—all, in any case, integral to the atmospheric totality of the film.
Not an outright metafilm in the sense of Fellini’s 8 1/2, Il sorpasso does, nevertheless, have its finger on the pulse of Italian filmmaking circa 1962, particularly as it was representative of Italian culture at the time. The English title of the film, “The Easy Life,” at once suggests the fancy-free nature of the picture and no doubt attempted to capitalize on Fellini’s “Sweet Life.” Risi and similar filmmakers were broaching a type of Italian cinema that also deviated from the films of Fellini, as well as Visconti, Antonioni, and Pasolini, among others. Monda alludes to the work of these directors as points of comparison (and as points of more prominent standing). Certainly, Il sorpasso is of a different mold than these “highbrow,” intellectual examples of overt cinematic artiness. Risi’s most obvious filmic commentary comes when Bruno voices his ambivalence toward Michelangelo Antonioni, whom he still considers a great director. He talks with Roberto about “loneliness, inability to communicate, and that stuff that’s all the rage now—alienation, like in Antonioni’s films.” On L’eclisse: “I fell asleep. Had a nice snooze.” Ironically, of course, all these traits are to a degree present throughout Il sorpasso. But Bruno would probably like this film. With its tempo, its humor, and its comical slice of leisurely life, there is no room for such perceived cinematic fatigue.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Bright Lights Film Journal, CineAction, Sound on Sight, and Moving Pictures Magazine.
Il Sorpasso was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection. All sourced commentary in this review can found in the film’s supplementary features.