Il sorpasso: The Joys of Disillusionment

On Film / Essays — Apr 28, 2014

Like the fast sports car that roars through the streets of Rome in the opening, Il sorpasso charges at a delicious pace from start to finish, each scene uncovering new landscapes, sardonic ironies, and oddball secondary characters while adding layers of nuance to its two principals. This miraculously entertaining film has lost not a whit of contemporaneous zing in the half century since its 1962 release. If anything, its disappearance from American distribution for many years allows us to appreciate it now with startled gasps of pleasure, as a newly unwrapped, jazz-scored, sleekly propulsive machine from the golden years of the commedia all’italiana.

That 1960s–’70s cinematic movement was spearheaded by Mario Monicelli, Alberto Lattuada, Pietro Germi, and Dino Risi, all of whom had roots in neorealismo but felt that its humanistic preoccupation with war and deprivation had played itself out, and that it was time to tackle the contradictions of Italian society under the economic boom with more irreverent gusto. Risi, the director of such sharp, mordantly satiric films as The Sign of Venus (1955), Love and Larceny (Il mattatore, 1960), A Difficult Life (1961), Scent of a Woman (1974), and Il sorpasso, his masterpiece, was determined to make movies that were both well crafted and commercially popular. He had begun his career studying psychiatry (a fact worth remembering, given his penchant for complex psychological shadings), then had been lured into the motion picture industry, first as a critic and screenwriter and later as the director of numerous documentaries.

From 1952 on, he turned out an average of two features a year. It was not until his fifteenth feature, the international hit Il sorpasso, however, that his unique gifts as a cinematic stylist became more widely apparent—and even now, it must be said, he is underrated, possibly because comedic filmmakers always fight an uphill battle when it comes to being taken seriously. But Il sorpasso is not without its serious side, and its dramatic tensions keep us off-balance and engrossed.

At the film’s core is the relationship between two men who meet by happenstance—or, put another way, the extraordinary performances of two magnificent actors who embody these characters: Jean-Louis Trintignant as Roberto, a shy, reserved, well-mannered law student, and Vittorio Gassman as Bruno, a loud, brash, fun-loving lothario. Roberto is wary of Bruno—understandably so, given the older man’s habit of borrowing money and indulging in mischievous pranks. He keeps trying to disentangle himself from the other’s commandeering lead. Significantly, we are made privy to the introverted Roberto’s thoughts, through periodic voice-overs, but never to the extroverted Bruno’s. Since Bruno is so quick to act out his impulses and speak his mind with uncensored frankness, we probably don’t need to listen in on his mentality; but by virtue of our having access to Roberto’s thoughts, and of that character’s relative normalcy, he becomes the audience’s surrogate, watching and judging the flamboyant Bruno every step of the way, as we are, with fascination, mistrust, amusement, and alarm.

The motor driving the film is Gassman’s very physical performance as Bruno. Gassman had the wavy dark hair, lean, muscled physique, and overall good looks of a matinee idol, but he preferred roles that allowed him to mock a character’s insecure vanity—the perpetual sneer-smile on his face the quizzical expression of a man trying to put something over on you while fearing being made a patsy himself. It would be tempting to dismiss Gassman’s Bruno as merely an opportunistic con man. He is, to be blunt, a jerk, but a strangely sympathetic one. We like him in spite of ourselves. Again and again, he slips the noose of our condemnation by acting in a way that shows generosity (for instance, paying back Roberto the money he has borrowed at the first possible opportunity). What he really has going for him is vivacity: he enlivens any scene he enters. In roadside cafés, he will suddenly dance over to a waitress to put the moves on her (he hits on every woman in sight). By contrast, Roberto moves in a formal, hesitant way that makes his lower body seem frozen, blocklike. He also has a slight stammer, which grows fainter the longer he is in Bruno’s company. If Bruno is too aware of his charms, Roberto has too little confidence in his own attractiveness. The boyish-faced Trintignant aces the role—as he would again in Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969)—of a repressed, moralistic prude who secretly desires liberation. Roberto clearly wants to learn from Bruno how to be braver, sexier, less inhibited, which is why he keeps hanging out with him, against his better judgment. But the uptight law student never gives up trying to rein in his libidinous, rule-bending companion.

In one scene, when they have pursued two pretty foreign tourists to what turns out to be a cemetery, Roberto scolds Bruno, saying that this time he has gone too far, he has crossed the line. But when the men turn around and leave, the women express disappointment that the flirtation has ended. Later on, after Roberto has confided to Bruno on the road his boyhood crush on an aunt, they arrive at his relatives’ home and Roberto runs into that same aunt in the stairwell, and makes haste to get away from her, as if still smarting from the embarrassment of having confessed his childhood ambition to wed this woman, who is now looking rather plain and middle-aged (and who hopes, perhaps, to rekindle his admiration). Bruno, however, sees that she is still a warm-blooded woman and flirts with her, rearranging her hair and getting her to wear it down. As the two men leave, we see the aunt gazing at herself in an erotic afterglow: she has been brought alive again by Bruno’s attentions.

On the other hand, Bruno’s ex-wife unceremoniously kicks him off the bed when he tries to seduce her for old times’ sake. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Bruno goes from cocky bravado to bursts of self-pity, warning Roberto not to end up “a stray dog” like him. Incurious to the point of anti-intellectualism, rejecting out of hand any subject he doesn’t already know (Etruscan tombs, medieval architecture), he is by no means stupid; he has an urban peasant’s cunning that allows him to see through deception. (Note how quickly he uncovers the age-old infidelity of Roberto’s sainted great-aunt by observing the gestural similarities between her son and the overseer.) He certainly picks up on Roberto’s wary suspicion of him, which wounds him. What is clear is that Bruno likes the younger man and takes seriously his role of tutoring him in life’s pleasures, even if it means disillusioning him of his innocence. Exhibiting a genuine tenderness toward Roberto, Bruno is quick to explain that he’s not queer (one of his many semi-disparaging references to homosexuality, a reflexive kind of machismo), but his friendly feeling for the somewhat clueless Roberto is undeniable, and he seems baffled by Roberto’s need to keep running away from him.

The film could easily have turned into a schematic melodrama about a worldly, cynical player who destroys a shy, well-brought-up young man, in the manner of Claude Chabrol’s Les cousins, but it keeps evading that narrative by instancing Bruno’s bigheartedness and Roberto’s complicity, until we are obliged to accept that this is the story of a burgeoning friendship. If one of them does not make it out alive, that has less to do with either one destroying the other than with the blood sport of Italian driving. Thus, I think it would be wrong to interpret the film as a morality tale, arguing backward from the ending that it all goes to prove Bruno is a destroyer. Roberto is the one telling Bruno to go faster, faster. He has become a convert to speed. He readily admits that these last few days with Bruno have been the happiest of his life. If anything, what the film does demonstrate is the narrow gap between life force and death wish, between Eros and Thanatos.

The film’s title, Il sorpasso, refers to the Italian custom of overtaking cars on the highway. In its first American release, it carried the English title The Easy Life, which now seems a transparent attempt to capitalize on the success of La dolce vita. The original-language title is much more fitting, especially as it points to what the movie is really about: the spirit of Italy, for better or worse.
In a humorous essay about Italian driving habits, the writer Jackson Burgess explains:

The paramount feature of Italian highway driving is il sorpasso. The word sorpassare means “to pass with an automobile” and “to surpass or excel.” To sorpassare someone is to excel him socially, morally, sexually, and politically. By the same token, to be sorpassato is to lose status, dignity, and reputation. Stopping at a stop sign, for example, is prima facie evidence that the driver, if male, is a cuckold. Thus, it is not where you arrive that counts, but what (or whom) you pass on the way. The procedure is to floor your accelerator and leave it there until you come to something you can pass. If il sorpasso is not immediately possible, settle in its wake at a distance of six or eight inches and blow your horn until such time as you can pass. Whenever there is not actually a car to your immediate left, an Italian driver accelerates at once and passes at full speed. If the driver ahead has, in fact, stopped for a yawning chasm, the passer is done for.

This description could account for a good deal of the action in the film, and the climax thus be seen as nothing more or less than a demonstration of national character. Even in scenes that occur indoors, we are given instances of this Italian tendency to jump the line, to cut corners, to bend the rules—by no means restricted to Bruno (for instance, the workman who slips ahead of a dignitary waiting in line for a toilet). But much of Il sorpasso does take place on the road: like all road movies, it adheres to an episodic structure, which puts pressure on the screenplay to come up with surprises, with amusing, revealing, and poignant vignettes. The screenplay, by Risi, Ettore Scola (who would become a fine director himself), and Ruggero Maccari, is a marvel of comic invention, walking the tightrope between satire and sympathy.

The film testifies to the Italian love affair with the car, during the boom years, as a way to satisfy restless nervous energy and provide the illusion of getting ahead. Yet it is a truism of enlightened city planning that cars and walking cities are inherently antagonistic. The Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, speaking to this tension not long after the release of Il sorpasso, commented: “It has become quite difficult both to love Rome and to live in it, since these days it is a jungle of automobiles. If ever there was a city for walking, it’s this one; the cars seem to have invaded it by stealth, like an attack of blight. I cannot understand who wanted them, since everyone curses them. They overrun the city like a river at flood tide.” Bruno never tires of expressing his preference for the excitements of city life over rural life, yet he loves driving above all else, and his attachment to the car keeps propelling him out of Rome, to crisscross large swaths of the countryside. During this impromptu tour of Italy, we glimpse in the background not only fetching landscapes but dreary, nondescript stretches of suburban sprawl, such as had begun to deface the areas between the historical centers preserved for tourists.

The look of the film owes a great deal to the gifted cinematographer Alfio Contini, who exploits the rich, graphic possibilities of widescreen black and white. That format’s aesthetic, which reached an apogee in the early 1960s, made the most of swiftly traversed horizontals (such as Bruno’s car racing through streets and down highways), of architecturally spaced verticals dividing the frame, and of the moody shadows of oncoming night. Risi’s training as a documentary filmmaker is displayed in the many cutaways to individual gawkers, faces in the crowd who witness or ignore the protagonists’ shenanigans. For all the two-shots of Bruno and Roberto relating to each other in the car, we are never far away from registering the essentially benign presence of the Italian masses, some bourgeois, others working-class. A recurrent motif involves shots of dancers doing the twist—an American import, though with an Italian accent—to a particularly moronic, catchy tune, which conveys the national dedication to having fun. Bruno and Roberto, scoffing at one country dance where a middle-aged farmhand is grinding away, dub it the “Clodhopper Twist.” The point is that, whatever their moral or intellectual shortcomings, these ordinary Italians know how to amuse themselves.

There is a memorable moment early on in Il sorpasso when Bruno says he saw Antonioni’s L’eclisse and it put him to sleep (then he covers himself by declaring that Antonioni is a very fine director). This passage can be read many ways: (1) as a meta-commentary on the film you are watching, its aim to entertain enough to keep you awake; (2) as an assertion by the commedia all’italiana school that it is every bit as artistic, in its own way, as its rival, the Italian art cinema; and (3) as a claim staked to portray Italy as it actually is, not as that dour, solemn master of alienation, Michelangelo Antonioni, portrays it. To take one example: when Antonioni shows a gaggle of young people dancing en masse to pop music in L’avventura, he seems to be deploring it as emblematic of the decline and fall of Western civilization, whereas Risi depicts a similar scene as people just having fun. Risi was a satirist, every bit as aware of the shallowness and soullessness of much contemporary Italian life, but he drew different conclusions from it. He chose to be amused rather than appalled by the petty behavior and boastful vanities he observed. Hence the ambivalent attitude the film takes toward Bruno, who is neither hero nor villain, who is childishly irresponsible one moment and gracious and lovable the next. The fact that his sensible daughter, played by the adorable Catherine Spaak, is still fond of him, despite his many disappearances, counts for a lot. Even his serene ex-wife (Luciana Angiolillo), while not interested in the least in taking him back, continues to have maternal sympathy for this man who reminds her of a lost child. In a sense, that is also Risi’s attitude toward Italy: he sees what is foolish, corrupt, profoundly unserious, and self-destructive in the country’s behavior but cannot help loving it. The result is the bittersweet mash-up of exuberance and regret that is Il sorpasso.