Il sorpasso [Blu-Ray]

Il sorpasso [Blu-Ray]

Director : Dino Risi

Screenplay : Dino Risi and Ettore Scola and Ruggero Maccari (dialogue by Ettore Scola and Ruggero Maccari)

MPAA Rating : NR

Year of Release : 1962

Stars : Vittorio Gassman (Bruno Cortona), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Roberto Mariani), Catherine Spaak (Lilly Cortona), Claudio Gora (Bibi), Luciana Angiolillo (Bruno’s wife), Linda Sini (Zia Lidia)

Il sorpasso Warning: The following essay reveals significant information about the film’s ending. Please read no further if you have not yet seen the film and do not want to read any plot spoilers.

Dino Risi’s Il sorpasso is one of the highlights of the commedia all’italiana, a subgenre of Italian cinema that flourished in the early 1960s by merging the aesthetics of neorealism with a brash sense of satirical comedy. The general thematic impulse was still the same—to examine and critique the nature of Italian society, warts and all—but given that the country has shifted from the desolation of the immediate post-World War II era to the thriving, boom economy of the early ’60s, it made sense that social comedy would provide a more appropriate lens than stark drama. Although nowhere near as dour as neorealism, commedia all’italiana was no less harsh in its indictment of the foibles of Italian culture, especially the sense of unbridled machismo that defined the ideal Italian male, which in Il sorpasso provides both the film’s biggest laughs and the cause of its shockingly tragic ending.

Although released in the U.S. with the English language title The Easy Life, Il sorpasso is actually best translated as “The Overtaking,” a specific reference to the tendency in Italian driving to pass other cars as a means of demonstrating one’s superiority. The title is apt, as much of the film takes place on the open road, a familiar concept today, but one that was largely alien to Italian cinema in the early ’60s (the film has since gone on to influence road movies as disparate as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and Alexander Payne’s Sideways). The plot centers on the development of an unlikely, but ultimately poignant relationship between two diametrically opposed men: Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a shy, reserved law student, and Bruno (Vittorio Gassman), a brash, outspoken lothario. They are opposites in literally every way: socially (introverted versus extroverted), behaviorally (quiet versus loud), intellectually (thoughtful versus impulsive), and even physically (fair versus dark). Yet, the film’s greatest pleasure is the way they develop a genuine friendship that brings out the best in both of them without ever hiding or dismissing their flaws. This is particularly true of Gassman’s Bruno, who should be absolutely detestable, yet grows on us with his rogue charm and brute honesty, which Gassman wields with great gusto that somehow never becomes overbearing.

The film begins on August 15, the public holiday known as “Ferragosto,” and it follows the characters over a two-day road trip that begins with Bruno insisting that he take Roberto out for a drink after Roberto allows him to use his phone. The drink turns into lunch, and lunch turns into dinner, and dinner turns in nightclubbing, and so on and so forth. At each juncture Bruno talks Roberto into sticking with him for just a while longer, always with the promise that he will be able to return to his all-important studies. Roberto is too timid to make his true feelings known, but Trintignant’s subtle performance conveys the character’s secret desire to break out of his own skin, even if only vicariously by sharing space with such an outsized persona as Bruno’s.

The screenplay by Risi, Ettore Scola, and Ruggero Maccari takes on an episodic format, with Bruno and Roberto moving from location to location, each standing in for some facet of the Italian social spectrum and each populated by various secondary characters who add to the film’s cultural texture. We meet elements of each man’s family, including Roberto’s wealthy aunt and uncle and cousins, whose insular bourgeois existence represents his intended future, and Bruno’s long-estranged wife (Luciana Angiolillo) and nearly adult daughter Lilly (Catherin Spaak), who has taken up with an older, richer man for entirely practical reasons. That Lilly still wants to speak to her absentee father and that his wife still considers him with some sympathy is testament to the power of Bruno’s personality, which often flattens his otherwise caddish behavior (hitting on every woman he comes across, serving his own needs first, borrowing money at every turn, etc.). He excels at the art of getting by, but at the expense of really feeling or experiencing anything. Bruno’s life is a rush, just like his driving—fast and furious, but also rootless and superficial (at one point he describes himself as being like a stray dog). His life in the fast lane is really no more fulfilling than Roberto’s wallflower tendency to bury himself in books; both men need to escape their own worst tendencies.

Risi, who began making documentary films after leaving his previous career in psychiatry, had directed 14 features before Il sorpasso became a cultural touchstone of early ’60s Italian cinema. He had already made a number of satirical social comedies, and he proved to have a deft sense of managing the intertwined humor and drama of his incredibly complex characters. His background in documentary work also serves Il sorpasso’s travelogue nature, which takes us via Bruno’s souped-up Lancia Aurelia through dense urban streets, suburban sprawl, and wide open countryside (the film is, if nothing else, a great portrait of Italy at the time). Just as Bruno and Roberto are opposing portraits of masculinity, the film’s depiction of Italy reveals many competing elements, especially the conflict between the old and the new, which is best represented in Bruno’s driving habits (note how he takes special pleasure in overtaking older drivers and shows no respect for country folk or those down on their luck). The film’s only real flaw is the use of voice-over narration to let us into Roberto’s inner world; it makes practical sense given that he is too reserved to state his real feelings, but it feels out of place and, frankly, unnecessary. Everything we need to know about Roberto’s insecurities and worries can be read much better off Trintignant’s gently expressive face and body language.

Despite the often humorously raucous nature of Il sorpasso, the film ends on a bluntly tragic note, one that the film’s producer begged Risi to drop lest it turn off audiences just looking for a good time. Having finally found a sense of liberation, Roberto eggs Bruno into driving faster and faster, more and more recklessly, which results in a near head-on collision with a truck that propels Bruno out of the car and sends Roberto to a brutal death as he remains trapped in the car as it crashes down a rocky slope. The ending is jarring—shocking in the most powerful way—although it is not without precedent. Risi provides foreshadowing early on when Bruno and Roberto happen upon a major car accident on the highway that has caused at least one fatality, and the tension of the moments leading up to the crash have an insistently different tone than the driving sequences that precede them. Something is different, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it.

It is hard to deny the tendency to read the ending of the film as a moralistic condemnation of the kind of rootless, reckless life that Bruno lives, which Roberto begins to embrace just moments before his demise. Yet, the complexity of the film’s emotional textures contradicts such a one-note ending, especially since it leaves Bruno battered, but alive, to witness the violent death of his new friend and, one could argue, protégé. The ending knocks us flat because it knocks Bruno flat, something that was otherwise unimaginable, and we can only hope that it compels him to be a better person (although probably not). Roberto’s death is not so much punishment for either him or Bruno as it is simply one realistic outcome of the film’s scenario, a fundamental characteristic of neorealism, which sought to depict life as it is, not as a Screenwriting 101 playbook would dictate. The ending leaves us with a host of questions, and the film’s immense popularity with audiences and lasting impact is testament to just how powerful such thoughtful provocation can be.

Il sorpasso Criterion Collection Blu-ray / DVD Combo Set

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • New introduction by filmmaker Alexander Payne
  • New interviews with screenwriter Ettore Scola and film scholar Rémi Fournier Lanzoni
  • Interview from 2004 with director Dino Risi
  • Introduction by actor Jean-Louis Trintignant from a 1983 French television broadcast of the film
  • A Beautiful Vacation (2006) documentary
  • Speaking with Gassman (2005) documentary
  • Excerpts from a Back to Castiglioncello (2012) documentary
  • Trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Lopate, an essay by critic Antonio Monda, as well as excerpts from Risi’s writings, with an introduction by film critic Valerio Caprara
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 29, 2014

    Having been largely unavailable on home video in the U.S. since, well, pretty much ever, Criterion’s jam-packed new Blu-ray edition of Il sorpasso is a welcome correction. The disc features a strong 2K digital restoration, the majority of which was transferred from the original 35mm camera negative with some additional footage being drawn from a 35mm composite fine-grain print (I am assuming some portions of the negative were too damaged to make a good source). There is no noticeable variation in the film’s presentation on Blu-ray, as it features good detail and contrast throughout. Digital restoration has taken care of the ravages of time, and the only truly noticeable defects are a few hairs that got caught in the camera gate (kudos to the transfer team for leaving these in). The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24 bit from a 35mm soundtrack negative and digitally restored, leaving it largely clean and clear.
    Perhaps because Il sorpasso has been unavailable on home video in the U.S. for so long and has fallen into the shadows of so much other great Italian cinema of that time, Crtiterion has pulled out all the stops in terms of supplements. We begin with a new introduction by filmmaker Alexander Payne, who talks about how he discovered the film and the effect it had on him in making Sideways (2004). There are also two new interviews, one with screenwriter Ettore Scola and one with film scholar Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, who helps contextualize the film historically and culturally. From the archives Criterion has dug up both a lengthy interview with director Dino Risi, conducted by film critic Jean A. Gili, from 2004, and an interview with actor Jean-Louis Trintignant from a 1983 French television broadcast of the film. Also on the disc are two full documentaries, A Beautiful Vacation (2006), which chronicles Risi’s career and features interviews with the director and his collaborators and friends, and Speaking With Gassman (2005), which covers the relationship between Vittorio Gassman and Risi and was directed by Risi’s son Marco. There is also a sizable excerpt from Back to Castiglioncello (2012), a documentary that revisits the location for the film’s beach scenes, and a theatrical trailer. The insert booklet includes an essay by critic Phillip Lopate, an essay by critic Antonio Monda, as well as excerpts from Risi’s writings, with an introduction by film critic Valerio Caprara.

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