Hilarious and heartbreaking, Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso is a textbook example of genre cinema that sneaks in its subversive subtext like a pimped-out Trojan horse. This mordant commedia all’italiana conceals stabs at social commentary beneath the amiable veneer of a freewheeling road movie. The film never lacks what Nick the mechanic (in Robert Aldrich’s similarly car-crazed Kiss Me Deadly) would onomatopoetically refer to as “va-va-voom,” yet a melancholy mood of social atomization and existential bootlessness are endemic from the outset as middle-aged bon vivant Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) tools around Roman streets vacated by a summer holiday in a futile quest to find a public phone. The plot kicks into gear, so to speak, when he spies bookish law student Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) at an open window—and the wordless way Trintignant backs away from the embrasure says everything you’ll need to know about his unassuming character.
Bruno embodies a very specific sort of savoir-faire, what the Italians call “the art of getting by,” when it comes to glad-handing Roberto’s rural relations into making him a present of an old and valuable grandfather clock, or grab-assing the female staff at a seaside restaurant. And, per usual, the imposition of a brash and opportunistic extrovert on the too-tidy life of a zealously studious wallflower provides the requisite comedic fodder. But there’s more to Bruno than first glance might reveal. While Roberto remains a lightly sketched straight man, Bruno is shaded by dark and light in fully rounded chiaroscuro. On the one hand, his unrelenting urge to overtake and thereby override the indolent complacency of Sunday drivers finds its audible emblem in the insolent blare of his car horn—an irrational urge to put his life at stake in the name of technical mastery that soon enough turns into a literal example of the Freudian death drive. Whereas, on the other hand, his acerbic criticism of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (“I had a good snooze!”) ironically recalls Andrew Sarris’s all-purpose putdown of the director as “Antoniennui.”
True to its roots in medieval puppet theater and farce, commedia all’italiana makes frequent and often adroit use of caricature and stereotype. These elements are certainly discernible in Il Sorpasso, where character traits can be amplified to broad opera buffa effect (Roberto’s uncle’s gay butler) or focused in on more incisive social satire (his cousin, the fascist-friendly businessman). Despite the genre’s reliance on fixed types, and in keeping with Risi’s early training as a psychiatrist, the director and his screenwriters endow the characters (Bruno in particular) with a refreshing degree of psychological complexity. To cite the most obvious example, Roberto and Bruno are only ostensibly diametrically opposed. Rather, each reveals traces of the other’s dominant characteristic: In the midst of the maelstrom, Bruno confesses to feeling “alone as a stray dog,” while Roberto allows himself to open up his debilitating, deliberate existence to the spontaneity of Bruno’s impulsive carpe-diem sensibility.
Risi and DP Alfio Contini bring an astute visual sensibility to Il Sorpasso, something viewers attuned to the film’s ostensibly breezy storyline might easily miss. Of course, it’s next to impossible to ignore the vitality of the driving sequences, due in no small measure to the availability of lightweight handheld cameras that put you smack in the seat of Bruno’s sporty Lancia Aurelia. But it’s easier to overlook Risi’s unerring use of camera movement and placement to limn character, whether panning across the motorway to pick up the boys as they hastily exit a roadside eatery in favor of amorous pursuit, or the way he blocks domestic interior scenes involving Bruno’s estranged wife (Luciana Angiolillo) and nubile daughter (Catherine Spaak) with a geometrical exactitude that bears comparison to Claude Chabrol’s psychosexual thrillers.
In its final moments, Il Sorpasso darkens unexpectedly into tragedy. As it happens, Bruno’s proficiency in “the art of getting by” isn’t enough, and ultimately there’s a terrible price to be paid for always passing the buck. Though the film’s downer ending might come across as unearned, an overly programmatic narrative conceit that strives to lend the featherweight comedy some much needed heft, it’s a development that has been rigorously prepared for all along. The whiff of sudden death has been in the air from the moment Bruno capitalizes on a roadside fatality to acquire some “lightly used” furniture at a substantial discount. But Risi saves his bitterest irony for the finale. With its disconsolate denouement, Il Sorpasso tips its hand as a cautionary tale concerning the perils of Italy’s postwar “economic miracle,” a kick-started campaign to catch up with industrial modernization in the wake of WWII that came to be known as il boom. As screenwriter Ettore Scola says in one of the disc’s supplements: “There’s no boom without a crash.” You only have to recall the farrago that followed our recent infatuation with “subprime mortgages” to recognize that it’s as true today as it was 50-some years ago.
Criterion’s 2K restoration of Il Sorpasso is a revelation on Blu-ray. Blacks are deep and true, while fine details are presented with impeccable precision. There’s next to nothing in the way of blemishes or artifacts. The image looks as crisp and finely tuned as it must have the day the first print was struck. The linear PCM mono track admirably delivers Riz Ortolani’s raucous score, punctuated by the reiteration of peskily infectious pop tunes; the sound design (all musically blatting horns and screeching brakes) stands out quite nicely.
Over three hours of bonus materials strike a nice balance between film-specific analysis and career-retrospective overview (both director Dino Risi and star Vittorio Gassman get a much-needed spotlight shone on their lengthy and prolific careers), the latter inevitably tinged with melancholy and even a bit of nostalgia. Alexander Payne kicks things off with an appreciative introduction that succinctly outlines the formal and thematic debts his film Sideways owes to Il Sorpasso. In an interview from 2004, Risi discusses the film’s genesis in a madcap international spree taken at the behest of a prospective producer, as well as explaining the significance of the film’s original title: Sorpasso is a term that refers to one car overtaking another, and it also connotes what we’d colloquially call "putting the pedal to the metal," both of whose senses apply in spades to this film, more so than its rather bland English-language appellation, The Easy Life.
Jean-Louis Trintignant sits down with actress Marie-Christine Barrault at a table in an Italian restaurant to discuss the film in a short piece shot for French television in 1983. He talks about coming to his role late, after filming had already begun with a vaguely similar-looking stand-in. Screenwriter Ettore Scola (who later made a career for himself as a writer-director) puts Il Sorpasso in context among its time and genre, and also mentions difficulties with producers over the bleak and tragic finale. Film scholar Remi Fournier Lanzoni provides further (academic yet always incisive) insights into the times and, more specifically, into the commedia all’italiana as a genre. "Back to Castiglioncello" is an excerpt from a documentary about the beach town setting for much of Il Sorpasso—it’s brief but intriguing, for glimpses of the burg today as much as for its talking-head contributions.
"A Beautiful Vacation" is a welcome overview of Dino Risi’s life and career, an hour-long piece commissioned to coincide with Risi’s 90th birthday in 2006. Featuring clips and promotional art from a large number of his films, epigrammatic snippets from his extensive writings, and commentary from a panoply of actors and critics, if nothing else the documentary makes you wish more of the man’s films were readily available on home video. Compiled five years after Gassman’s death, "Speaking with Gassman" spends half an hour with the actor, both in interviews alongside Risi (the two collaborated all told on 16 films), and alone, bearded and frail, speaking candidly about the actor’s life. Cumulatively, these two documents are more than a little heartbreaking, especially in contrast with the vitality and relentless velocity of the film they explicate. Finally, there’s the typically lavishly illustrated booklet with essays by critics Philip Lopate and Antonio Monda; both pieces are helpful for fleshing out an understanding of the film and its contexts. There’s also a selection of Risi’s poignant ruminations on art and life—the heartbreak of outliving friends and loved ones, and the dubious pleasures involved in revisiting his films.
The road leads nowhere in Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso, a searing sociological X-ray that lays bare the true cost of Italy’s early-’60s economic miracle, finally available on home video in Criterion’s gorgeously packaged dual-format presentation.