Criterion's release of 1962's "Il Sorpasso" brings back a comedy that was long out of American circulation. Credit: The Criterion Collection
'Il Sorpasso' The Criterion Collection $39.95
The gauntlet is thrown early in the 1962 Italian comedy “Il Sorpasso.” A brash, 40-something alpha male named Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) has just essentially bullied, if not kidnapped, Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a meek law student, to abandon his studies and hit the road. Bruno brings up “The Eclipse,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s acclaimed study of alienation in modern Italy. It put him to sleep, Bruno admits. In fact, it probably put much of “Il Sorpasso”’s many viewers to sleep.
But this isn’t mere anti-intellectualism (or anti-Antonioni-ism). At the time, and even now, comedy is not taken seriously, unless it does something formally special. Partly as a response to this, there arose a counter-movement against the likes of Antonioni, Fellini and Rossellini. “Commedia all’italiana,” practiced by Mario Monicelli (“Big Deal on Madonna Street”) and “Il Sorpasso” director Dino Risi, produced more populist yet deceptively lighthearted fare that quietly oozed craft, even subtle social commentary.
Indeed, poke at “Il Sorpasso” and it pokes back. Bruno and Roberto’s jaunt, speeding from place to place in the former’s convertible, doesn’t seem to be satire. And yet it takes Italy’s temperature, as “La Dolce Vita” did two years prior. (In fact, it was retitled in America as “The Easy Life,” as if to sound like that film's English title, "The Sweet Life." The actual meaning of "Il Sorpasso" is the daredevil, and very Italian, act of overtaking cars.) It comes to similar conclusions: that Italy in the 1960s is having fun now but the good times will come to a brutal end soon. (This proved creepily prophetic.)
Jean-Louis Trintignat and Vittorio Gassman hit the road in "Il Sorpasso." Credit: The Criterion Collection
It simply winds up more ambivalent about the diagnosis. This is an extrovert-vs.-introvert tale, one of the most common in comedy. (Risi would make another key example: 1974’s “Scent of a Woman,” also with Gassman, remade with Al Pacino.) But Bruno is if anything a mega-extrovert: He’s loud and dense and obnoxious and easily distracted and proud of the things he doesn’t know. He even accidentally hits on his loving daughter, shortly before making an unsuccessful pass at his ex-wife.
But he’s not a villain or particularly evil; he’s just never received, or simply ignored, that epiphany that makes you grow up. Gassman’s performance is not alternately charismatic and monstrous but both at the same time. He never lets up, is never discouraged and never gives up on Trintignant’s mostly reluctant wallflower. Ordinarily this middle-aged man-child would be the last guy at the party, but the party’s still in full, reckless swing.
In terms of pacing and energy, “Il Sorpasso” is closer to Bruno than Roberto, but it has a clear-eyed worldview that doesn’t assert itself and can even go unnoticed. Fits of profundity are woven into the film’s fabric, arising during stray bits of downtime between set pieces. After visiting one of Roberto’s childhood spots — where he finds the woman on whom he once crushed as a boy grown up and middle-aged — Roberto muses briefly on “the distorted memories of youth”: “You know why we always say [the past] was a wonderful time? We didn’t really remember what it was like.”
The same winds up happening in the film. It moves so fast and it seems like a blast. (The film itself was an actual word-of-mouth smash.) Even Roberto comes to see it as the best single stretch of his life, forgetting that he spent much of it remote and irritated, observing the fun from a distance with disdain — not unlike Antonioni did his film’s carefree revelers. It’s easy to get caught up in “Il Sorpasso,” but looking back on it, it seems even better than it did at the time.
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