Note: This essay contains spoilers.
In a period spanning a little more than three years, 1960 to 1963, Italian cinema lived its golden age. Obviously, there were many masterpieces released before and after that time, particularly during the neorealist era. What makes that brief moment unique, however, is the large quantity of great films, and the fact that they were directed by old masters, young newcomers, and established filmmakers alike.
During those three years, Federico Fellini directed La dolce vita and 8½; Luchino Visconti Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard; Vittorio De Sica Two Women; Michelangelo Antonioni L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse; and Roberto Rossellini the underrated Era notte a Roma. While the veteran Alessandro Blasetti was completing two documentaries (European Nights and I Love, You Love), a group of extraordinary new talents were directing their first films: Pier Paolo Pasolini Accattone, Mamma Roma, and La ricotta; Paolo and Vittorio Taviani Un uomo da bruciare; Ermanno Olmi Il posto; and Bernardo Bertolucci La commare secca.
Amid this abundance of gems, the risk of being overlooked was great; it happened to even as extraordinary a film as Dino Risi’s Il sorpasso (1962), which was dismissed by the critics. It should be said that comedies were generally not taken very seriously at the time: it would be many years before Risi’s films, along with those of his fellow commedia all’italiana masters Pietro Germi and Mario Monicelli, gained critical prestige. Those comedies—which made fun of Italian vices and weaknesses in a realistic environment—were then considered a minor genre and a corruption, if not a betrayal, of neorealist themes. In terms of critical reaction, the best that could happen to them was to be considered well crafted and popular, where the term popular was not exactly a compliment. Il sorpasso had an even more difficult time in its journey to acclaim, at first deemed inferior even to Risi’s own earlier pictures—critics called it cynical and acerbic.
A native of Milan who became a director almost by chance—he studied psychiatry—Risi started with a very different kind of cinema: his debut was Barboni (1946), a short documentary about unemployment in his hometown, which was followed by other documentaries influenced by neorealist themes and aesthetics, about the dramatic postwar situation in Italy. He made his breakthrough, however, with comedies, and in the fifties turned out a number of big hits, in particular Scandal in Sorrento (Pane, amore e . . . , 1955), the third part of an extremely successful series, albeit one defined yet again by critics in a dismissive way—as neorealismo rosa (referring to a lighthearted, not socially committed—even sentimental—degeneration of neorealist aesthetics). That success was followed by several more in the same vein: The Sign of Venus (1955), Poor but Beautiful (1957), Il vedovo (1959), and Love and Larceny (Il mattatore, 1960).
Il sorpasso marked a clear change in tone from those carefree films and had a rocky start popularly as well as with the critics. Only fifty spectators attended the opening; the reviews didn’t help, nor did the generic title (literally, The Overtaking). Risi also blamed his star, the extraordinary Vittorio Gassman, who had just come off the terrible fiasco of Rossellini’s Anima nera. Audiences, however, didn’t stay away for long. In a matter of days, word of mouth transformed Il sorpasso into a cultural phenomenon: unlike the reviewers, spectators embraced the bitter tone and the brazen, politically incorrect portrait of Italian society. It took more than a decade for critics to catch up, and today Il sorpasso is hailed by all as an undisputed classic of Italian cinema; nobody would be ashamed to mention it in the same breath as an Antonioni or Visconti film, although at the time that would have been inconceivable.
In order to explain the film’s perennial popularity in Italy, it is important to underline some of its peculiar elements. Risi’s masterpiece is built on the back of a character who is charismatic and horrifying, funny and scary, handsome and dangerous. This mix of extreme darkness with comedy was something quite new in Italian cinema, however it was this very ambiguity—taking commedia all’italiana to its limit—that seemed to appeal to the public. Terrified of having a commercial flop, producer Mario Cecchi Gori had tried without success to convince Risi to shoot a different ending, and on the disastrous opening night, he welcomed the few spectators by saying, “Sono rovinato!” (I am ruined!). But Risi’s courageous proposition spoke directly to the guts of the public, as if someone were finally saying something sincere about the reality of Italian culture, customs, and dreams. This is what we are, and we cannot be different, the movie proclaimed: comedy goes along with tragedy, or, to quote screenwriter Ennio Flaiano, “In Italy, the situation is always tragic, but never serious.”
The film is a road movie, and this was also something relatively new to Italian cinema (its most memorable predecessor, Rossellini’s 1954 Journey to Italy, was almost completely ignored by the public), and appealed to an emerging middle class craving travel, perhaps in a beautiful car such as the one in the movie. In that period of economic boom, highways were being built, connecting Italy from north to south; Risi interpreted perfectly a new desire that had surfaced after the tragedy of the war. Until the end of the film, when the story reveals its moral, the audience agrees with the idea that it is blasphemous to dedicate a summer day to study instead of enjoying life traveling around il bel paese.
The narrative is built around the clash between two characters: the exuberant charlatan Bruno Cortona (Gassman) and the quiet, shy Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Bruno’s acts are despicable and dangerous, but he is always irresistible. The calm, recessive Roberto is a loser in his hands, and the journey—started by chance on August 15, Ferragosto, a major holiday in Italy—leads him to see life through Bruno’s eyes.
Bruno makes fun of everything—family, institutions, rules, love. He even attacks the cultural icon Antonioni, calling his films boring (something that likely played well with a large part of the audience). In Bruno’s world, immediate pleasure wins over real joy, sentimentality over passion, and superficiality over depth. Risi here expresses his vision of an archetypal Italian soul, and Bruno’s hedonistic acts anticipate the critical years to follow: in less than a decade, Italy would face economic austerity, social conflict, and terrorism. Step by step, while Bruno is driving Roberto toward death on the via Aurelia, Il sorpasso reveals itself to be a harsh, uncomfortable moral fable.
Aurelia is the consular way that connects Rome to the wealthy summer places of Tuscany. The depiction of their trip is once again ambivalent: we are supposed to be seduced but at the same time concerned. Risi knows well the fancy locations (Castiglioncello and the Versilia area), the hot nightclubs, the exclusive beaches, the yachts, the clothes, the cars, the music (one song in particular, “Vecchio frack,” by Domenico Modugno, the story of a man who commits suicide, seems to touch, at least for a second, the heart of Bruno Cortona). In one of the summerhouses, Bruno meets his former wife, who comments on him in a chilling way: “The first impression is the right one,” she tells Roberto. Later, Bruno doesn’t recognize his own daughter, Lilli (Catherine Spaak), and starts flirting with her. This portrait of a family disintegrated by the lack of responsibility of a hedonistic father was another sign of the times. But Risi goes beyond that, and his provocation is once again politically incorrect. Lilli is a young woman who has a companion (Claudio Gora) older than her father: the man is reassuring, wise, and, most important, rich. Her emancipation goes hand in hand with wealth.
Aurelia is also the name of Bruno’s car, which mirrors both the personality of the owner and what was happening in Italy: when originally produced in 1956, the Lancia Aurelia represented an ideal of elegance and refinement, and, as with the trendy locations, its glamour definitively contributed to the success of the film. However, something Risi understood, and shows masterfully, is how that same car was already becoming a symbol of a vulgar and obnoxious status—Bruno clearly has fixed both the engine and the horn to be faster and louder. And when he shows it off with smiling arrogance, we feel a sense of decadence and corruption that forecasts a tragedy bound to happen.
Several great films of this era showed a bleak vision of Italy at the peak of its economic boom. La dolce vita, probably the most iconic among them, was a magniloquent fresco of hell in the clothing of paradise. Risi dared something different: a provocative grimace of a film that hides a sudden, inextinguishable anguish in its ride through illusory pleasure. However, despite its nihilist portrait of Italian weakness, Il sorpasso reveals a sincere quest for redemption. And this was the ultimate element that audiences, perhaps unconsciously, embraced—it went beyond the admiration for the perfect depiction of the Italian spirit, the exhilarating moments of pure comedy, and the fascination with the locations, the music, the car, and everything else that showed how Italy was changing while remaining always the same.
The shocking and sudden ending was extremely courageous for the time, but spectators accepted it because of the consequent painful moral longing: it is an unavoidable tragic conclusion that shows an easy life doesn’t exist. A moralist with few illusions, Risi knew very well that the reason only Roberto should die is that Bruno has yet to begin really living. He knew the verse of the poet Umberto Saba: “It’s thinking about death that at the end helps us to live.”