During the ’60s Italy seemed to have finally come out of the brutal destruction and demoralization left behind by WWII and Il Duce’s reign of terror. Perhaps a little too overconfident about the future, some Italian filmmakers set out to portray their country as a carefree paradise in which life was only threatened by self imposed lack of enjoyment.
Thus, commedia all’italiana (literally,”comedy Italian style”) was born. One of the masters of this genre was Dino Risi, who in a filmography mostly consisting of stories about beautiful people with golden bodies and impossibly beautiful smiles found themselves trapped in misadventure after misadventure, all of this set of course to bubbly Italian popular songs.
While Risi became one of the world’s funniest filmmakers, his works haven’t received the restorations and praise they deserve, which makes it about time, The Criterion Collection got ahold of what might be Risi’s best film: Il Sorpasso. Unlike some of his other films, like Normal Young Man starring a stunningly beautiful Lino Cappolichio, Il Sorpasso tends to be slightly more realistic, to the point where it sometimes feel like a condemnation of the dolce far niente lifestyle.
The plot is quite simple: young, but extremely responsible student Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is looking out his window one day when a stranger drives by and stops to ask him for a favor: to place a call for him. The trustful man invites Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) to come inside and make the call himself.
After failing to get in touch with his friends Bruno suggests that Roberto stop his studies and come have a drink with him — a token to show his gratitude. The young man hesitates but perhaps seduced by Bruno’s Lancia Aurelia convertible or his suave demeanor accepts to go on a drive with him.
The harmless ride along the Via Aurelia, turns into a two-day-long journey across the Italian country in which the characters realize that nothing is exactly what it seemed. Roberto goes from deeply admiring and envying Bruno’s carefree lifestyle, to practically feeling sorry for him after he realizes how lonely he is. He learns that Bruno has an ex-wife and a teenage daughter with whom he practically has no relation. He wonders if his uptight, rigorous upbringing weren’t so bad after all, while Bruno goes from being condescendingly charming to the young man, to actually realizing that he’s valuable despite his more conventional lifestyle choices.
Risi shoots Tuscany and its surroundings with a combination of tenderness and primal sensuality, the camera sometimes gliding through the locations as if it was caressing them before an aggressive seduction. Risi, who isn’t trying to show social realism in any way, at least not obviously, captures the economic boom exploding in the country with the eye of someone who wishes he could act like Bruno, but prefers to exert Roberto’s cautionary measures; all of which makes us wonder if in fact Risi’s films were more personal than we give them credit for.
He extracts touching performances out of his leading men, giving Gassman the opportunity to shine in a dramatic part in which he gets to look like a movie star, but also remind us why he was one of Europe’s most underrated actors. As the plot leads on to devastating tragedy, we see Gassman age in front of our eyes, his carefreeness transformed into regret and desperation. Trintignant on the other side — who was half a decade away from starring in A Man and a Woman — brings a sense of extreme loyalty to Roberto, who in the hands of a lesser actor would have been turned into a goody two shoes without an inkling of a personality.
That Risi is able to turn this odd couple’s story into a film that’s socially and emotionally intelligent, while also being endlessly entertaining is a reminder that his work needs to be more sought out by younger generations, not to mention yet another stellar addition to the Criterion library. The Blu-ray edition includes a pristine 2k transfer that sometimes gives the film the look of a documentary, making for a richer viewing experience. This edition also includes an introduction by filmmaker Alexander Payne, whose own Sideways seems to be quite influenced by the pace and style of Il Sorpasso.
The amount of bonus features is staggering and includes interviews with Dino Risi (conducted by Rémi Fournier Lanzoni) as well as with Trintignant and screenwriter Ettore Scola. A 2006 documentary about Risi, features interviews with his friends and closest collaborators, while a documentary from 2012 shows us what became of the locations used in the film. Most fascinating of all is a documentary titled Speaking with Gassman in which the actor’s son talks about his father’s relationship with Risi. In all, Il Sorpasso makes for quite the luxurious summer treat.