Il Sorpasso is now available on Criterion Collection Blu-ray.
A poignant portrait of early 1960s Italy, Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso is often regarded as the epitome of the Commedia all’italiana genre. The term refers to a period within Italian cinema that ranged from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, where comedies focused on more risque or taboo social themes – such as sex, divorce, contraception and the coinciding Italian economic boom. These films usually take place in a middle-class setting and are characterised by profound sadness and strong social criticism, contrasting the films’ comedic elements.
Il Sorpasso is, in essence, a two-day road trip along the scenic coasts of Lazio and Tuscany with two men who could not be more different. The film starts with Bruno (Vittorio Gassman), an impulsive, larger-than-life middle-aged man who leads a seemingly carefree existence. A chance encounter introduces him to a young, timid law student, Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant). After allowing Bruno to use his telephone, Roberto accepts his offer for a drink. But he quickly falls prey to Bruno’s enthusiasm as their short lunchtime outing transforms into an unexpectedly long journey.
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As we learn more about the two men, their personalities, past and lifestyles, they come to embody two wildly different views of Italian society. Bruno is a hedonist, an extravagant, flamboyant and bold person who often comes off as immodest yet charms those around him. He lives for the moment, putting him in various tight situations, but he always manages to get by due to his charisma. Bruno represents modern Italian thinking in the 1960s as he embraces the unknown and strives for new experiences.
On the other hand, Roberto is a quiet and meek young adult who lives by the rules and has never stepped out of his comfort zone until meeting Bruno. He is essentially kidnapped, as he is too timid and polite to oppose Bruno’s spontaneous idea of going on an impromptu trip to nowhere. Roberto is the epitome of Italian tradition and convention.
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Il Sorpasso means ‘the act of overtaking’ in Italian, referring to Bruno’s reckless and impatient driving style of tailgating, overtaking and persistently honking the car horn. During their shared adventures, which include some hilarious, nail-biting and suspenseful moments, the two men gradually learn about each other through their unlikely connection. Here we learn that there is more to both men than their facade; they are, in fact, both deeply broken. Roberto realises that his childhood wasn’t as precious as he had remembered. At the same time, Bruno’s visit to his ex-wife and teenage daughter reveals a life that is not as easy-going and carefree as we initially thought.
Il Sorpasso is possibly one of the most authentic Italian films ever made. Here the use of various well-known 1960s Italian hit songs sets the tone from the start; an energetic and lively ode to a changing Italy. Meanwhile, the camerawork of Alfio Contini remains impressive as he treats us to a real car journey on busy Italian roads, a rare feat of ingenuity at a time when many directors opted for recorded backdrops.
However, what makes Il Sorpasso a cult classic is the performances of both leads, especially Vittorio Gassman, who manages to capture the blunt force of nature that is Bruno perfectly. With its uncomplicated plot, memorable characters and poignant undertones, Il Sorpasso is one of the first entries in a new wave of road movies, foreshadowing Easy Rider (1969).