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About twenty minutes into Dino Risi's entertaining Il Sorpasso, Vittorio Gassman is speeding along in his sports car when he tells his passenger Jean-Louis Trintignant that he fell asleep watching L'eclisse because it was so boring. But he's crazy about director Michelangelo Antonioni's fast sports car!
In 1962 the world's press was busy bowing before Italian film directors who specialized in art fare -- Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and the above-mentioned Antonioni. But the most popular film in Italy in '62 was Risi's Il Sorpasso, a refreshingly honest and funny road picture that presents Italians as they really were, just when the country was finally rising from a postwar economic depression. At one point the men in their sports car pass an entire family packed onto a rickety three-wheeled motorcycle, with all their possessions. It reminds us of Zampano's motor-caravan from Federico Fellinii's La Strada. These new carefree Romans are leaving the impoverished 1950s far behind.
A 'sorpasso' in this context means to pass a car on the road. The story is a two-day episodic adventure on the roads around Rome, that comes to life in its character detail. Brash, charismatic Bruno Cortona (Vittorio Gassman) is stuck in the city on a holiday when all the shops and restaurants are closed. He meets his natural opposite in Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an unprepossessing law student who finds he's no match for Bruno's expansive personality. Within a few minutes Bruno has a companion for the day. They blast out of town looking for a restaurant, and instead begin an adventure of discovery. Bruno takes risks in his Lancia Aurelia sports car, speeding and passing too frequently. Roberto is initially aghast at Bruno's rudeness but is won over by the man's effusive attitude and enthusiasm for pursuing women. Bruno is definitely an Italian 'bad boy' but Roberto cannot help but admire him -- he makes a big impression wherever he goes. They stop off at Roberto's uncle's country house, where Bruno all but seduces one of Roberto's relatives while making himself the life of the party. Bruno runs into an employer he ran out on, gets into a fight and they both get drunk... after which Bruno stops off at the house of his estranged wife (Luciana Angiolillo). Roberto is surprised to see Bruno trying to bluff his way through an awkward situation. Not only is the wife unimpressed -- they've been separated for three years -- Bruno finds out that his 19 year-old daughter Lilly (Catherine Spaak) is engaged to a sixty year-old industrialist, Bibi (Claudio Gora). Surrounded by beautiful women and accepted by the people he meets, Roberto discovers that there's more to life than following the straight and narrow path.
By virtue of its vibrant image of Italy, Dino Risi's comic adventure is just as serious as the works of more celebrated directors. His unfussy directing is as elegant as the more modernist registas, with the difference that he concentrates on human details instead of 'meaningful' insights. Il Sorpasso overflows with people of all kinds, not just the beautiful types that Roberto and Bruno encounter at the high-end beach resort at Castiglioncello. Anybody can jump out of the background for a few moments, from a girl Roberto tries to chat up at a railroad station to a lady at Roberto's uncle's house who somehow allows Bruno to make up her eyes and let her hair down. Bruno is standard hound when it comes to chasing women, almost crashing his car to track down a pair of German tourists. Risi shows all sides of the equation: the boys think that the tedeschi are mourning in a graveyard, and decide to leave them alone. As for the girls, they were hoping to score a free lunch from their admirers. Bruno tries his luck with a cashier in a gas stop station and a waitress at a seaside restaurant. He's not above letting a dance with a client's sexy wife degenerate into a vertical make-out session. He hits on women the same way he tries to borrow money from people -- indiscriminately. Bruno's behavior is selfish, immature and irresponsible; it's easy to label him as an Italian type but rogues of his kind come in all colors and nationalities.
Were this a moral tale the focus would be on Bruno's corrupting influence on Roberto, who is soon laughing along with Bruno's cynical sense of humor. To Bruno, being hip means indulging in selfish behavior and cruel pranks. He weasels out of helping some monks change a flat tire but isn't above approaching the driver at a truck crash about buying the damaged merchandise the man was transporting. Roberto doesn't fully understand that he's admiring a man who can't keep a friend longer than a couple of days, and whose family has all but disavowed him. Bruno's wife learned all of his tricks a long time ago. The bad example he's set for his daughter has resulted in her choosing a husband for security instead of love. Having been tossed from his wife's bedroom, Bruno tells Roberto that true companionship can only exist in the brotherhood of men. "What about Cain and Abel?" asks Roberto, whose white shirt bears a stain gotten when Bruno spoon-fed him some fish soup: in an Italian story a food stain would seem an appropriate Mark of Cain. By the end of the picture Roberto is in high spirits. He's gotten back all the money and more that he gave to Bruno, and he's on his way to find his sweetheart, a girl that he didn't dare talk to before. Roberto now thinks that blasting across the Italian countryside in a convertible is much more fun than focusing on a stuffy law book. Has he been corrupted, or has he simply awakened to the fun in life?
Dino Risi's assured direction and the natural script (co-authored with Ettore Scola and Ruggero Maccari) make Il Sorpasso a pleasure to watch. Vittorio Gassman captures the spirit of the kind of rake that breaks all the rules, gets all the women and, if lucky, learns to be unselfish before he completely alienates his family and friends. Bruno caught the eye of his future wife right after the war because she liked the way he looked in a Navy uniform... which wasn't his. Jean-Louis Trintignant's less showy and more predictable Roberto is an audience surrogate, who spends most of the picture reacting to Bruno's erratic behavior, or trying to emulate it with varying success. Risi's casting and direction of what must be fifty speaking parts makes us feel as if we know and understand what Italians are really like. Best of all, Risi's light touch (everyone seems to use that phrase) doesn't overemphasize the screenplay's more obvious points. Bruno encourages Roberto to laugh when they see some rustic 'hicks' dancing awkwardly to a Twist record out in a field. But later in the movie, the supposed sophisticates at a Castiglioncello beach bar do the exact same thing to the music of a juke box.
After a dubbing job Il Sorpasso was re-titled for the U.S. as The Easy Life, an attempt to be similar to the successful La Dolce Vita. According to director Risi, his film was the inspiration for Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider and the source of the word 'easy' in the title. They're both road pictures with controversial endings, but I don't see how anybody can compare Hopper's hip odyssey with Risi's rich observations and insightful characters.
A note for horror film fans: ...Et mourir de plaisir star Annette Stroyberg plays one of the German tourists chased by Bruno, who has a photo of Brigitte Bardot on the dashboard of his car. It is generally assumed that director Roger Vadim chose Stroyberg for her resemblance to the famous Bardot.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray + DVD of Il Sorpasso is a sharp-looking widescreen HD transfer, in perfectly preserved B&W. Sunny Rome and environs in August is so bright, that when a few clouds pass overhead in the final scenes, the world seems to go all gray. The film's audio job is excellent. Don't expect this reviewer to know when Vittorio Gassman switches to a Bolognese accent to curry favor with a cop, but it is possible to pick out clever Italian phrases in the dialogue. Director Risi gives us a taste of the music flooding the Italian airwaves in 1962 -- almost all of it Yankee- influenced. But classy Italo tunes like "Quando quando quando" pop up as well. A juke box or orchestra is playing everywhere the boys go, and Bruno's convertible is outfitted with an under-dash 45rpm record player.
Criterion has loaded the disc with video interviews and documentary excerpts that cover every aspect of Il Sorpasso: director Dino Risi, screenwriter Ettore Scola, actors Gassman and Trintignant film scholars and critics Rémi Fournier Lanzoni recall the film and discuss its merits. One docu by Risi's son returns to the Castiglioncello location in 2012. The original trailer mostly sets stills against a music cue by composer Riz Ortolani. Alexander Payne appears in a video introduction to the movie, which he says had a strong influence on his hit film Sideways. In the insert booklet are found essays by Philip Lopate, Antonio Monda and Valerio Caprara, as well as an article by Dino Risi.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Il Sorpasso Blu-ray + DVD
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