Retro Review: “Il Sorpasso” and Life on the Road

By: Daniel Reynolds

Since we’re just now coming out of winter and the dump-uary movie season, Reynolds returns to his series of retro reviews of some lesser known classic films. He wants to assure everyone this will probably be better than watching The Gunman.

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With spring in the air, and thoughts of travelling and vacation dancing through my head, I recently sat down to watch the 1962 Italian cult film Il Sorpasso, directed by Dino Risi. Last year, the Criterion Collection rescued the film for non-Italian audiences with a vibrant re-release and typical superb packaging. This new print positively shines.

In Il Sorpasso we get a deceptively simple story. It begins as Bruno Cortona (Vittorio Gassman) whips around an empty Rome in his convertible before spotting a young Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant) vacantly staring out his window. After some playful cajoling, the older Bruno convinces the shy Roberto, a law student, to go for a drive. We join them as they hit the country roads of Italy.

In his introduction to the film included on the Criterion version, director Alexander Payne outlines the tenets of the classic road movie: “Two people in a car, travelling from location to location; but it’s symbolic, I think, of travelling through life.” With the film’s simple setup, this feels obvious. And yet, Il Sorpasso‘s central idea is hardly as clichéd as a “journey down the road of life.” In Risi’s hands, the film dances around the idea of identity and change as easily as it zooms by cars on the open road.

Bruno on the left, Roberto on the right.

Bruno on the left, Roberto on the right.

For any film to work, even a “simple” road movie, we need conflict. So, the two leads of Il Sorpasso stand at opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Bruno is all maniacal energy and reckless flights of fancy. As brought to life by Gassman, he never seems to sit still. In the car he’s always honking the horn, checking out the passengers in neighbouring cars (and every woman), stopping, starting, and, subconsciously it feels like, searching. For what? That good time that is maybe just around the bend. Meanwhile, Trintignant as Roberto grips his seat, he looks anxious and is filled with doubt. We can see he wishes he could take wild leaps like Bruno, but nervous thoughts fly by behind his eyes and commitments abound. In that same introduction, Payne establishes the nature of this duality and inherent conflict. He recalls “the tension of the personalities of those two characters – typically one is a sensualist and one is an introvert.” We’re familiar with this concept – the buddy comedy, the odd couple, the opposites feuding with each other. But for Il Sorpasso, this is merely a starting point.

As the dominant presence in the film, Il Sorpasso feels like Bruno’s story. The film opens with him, he is its active agent, quite literally driving the plot forward. Gassman never lets us forget his presence in the film as he barrels through scenes at restaurants and night clubs, in quiet country houses and beach side resorts. His Bruno always feels like the centre of attention. As a result, we learn more about him than Roberto. We learn of Bruno’s line of work and meet a potential business partner. In a later twist, an ex-wife and teenaged daughter appear to betray the uncomplicated life Bruno seeks to project.

Despite this focus, the film invites us into Roberto’s thoughts. We hear his inner monologue at times, we get to know how he feels about Bruno, about his crush on a girl, about this crazy spontaneous journey he’s decided to be dragged along on. It’s true, as Payne mentions, the tension of the film comes from these two personalities – the endless recklessness of Bruno and the nervous reserve of Roberto – but by shaping the story as he does, Risi puts us on the mind state of both characters. We visually experience the emotional whiplash of Bruno while being locked in the head of Roberto. In this way, Il Sorpasso binds the two men together, each containing an element the other lacks, and bound to struggle for the way forward.

Living the life in Il Sorpasso.

Living the life in Il Sorpasso.

The English title of Il Sorpasso is The Easy Life, which conjures up an easy relation to La Dolce Vita or, The Sweet Life. Both titles are meant ironically, cast as they are in the materialistic post-war glow of Italy in the 1960s. As we journey along with the two men of the film, we do see a new side of Italy, one filled with wealth and vitality. This isn’t the glum neo-realism of Vittorio De Sica or Roberto Rossellini. But as with Fellini’s La Dolce VitaIl Sorpasso strives to ask more challenging questions about this supposed “easy” life. While most road movies lead their characters through unfamiliar terrain, here we find Bruno and Roberto actually going backward towards what they know. While their country changes rapidly around them, they revisit old diners, Roberto’s old family country house, and Bruno’s forgotten family – in effect, they revisit their old lives. While unacknowledged, both men appear to be looking for an answer as to how they’ve become who they are. With Bruno, at first free of commitments, we see a man trapped in the knowledge that he’s never managed to make a meaningful connection with anyone. He even notes late in the film that he doesn’t know Roberto’s last name. Roberto, on the other hand, wishes he had one ounce of Bruno’s confidence to seize life as it comes. The tragedy of this film, one that appears at first simple and light, is that neither of these men find a solution.

The actual literal translation of “il sorpasso” is “the surpassing” or “the overtaking.” In car terminology, the latter makes sense. The two men zip by all manner of vehicles out on the open road. But philosophically, the former translation holds more weight. Without saying as much, both men are living lives that have passed – or are passing – them by. Both struggle with this idea in their own way, silently looking to the other for a solution. In effect, Bruno and Roberto are sad halves of an incomplete whole. While its true the typical road movie sets characters on the road of life, as Payne says, usually they’re moving towards some sort of change or enlightenment. In its technique and central conflict, Il Sorpasso wonders at a more tragic question: can a person truly change at all?

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