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  • Ravi Swami

"Il Sorpasso", Dir: Dino Risi, 1962

Updated: Jul 18, 2021

One upside of lockdown has been the content available on YouTube as people upload whole films with subtitles from their collections. Furthermore, legitimate distribution companies have latched on to peoples' viewing habits during the past 18 months and are also adding their catalogues of films for viewing on the site, in many cases in HD.

If, like me, you have recently discovered Italian comedies, or "Commedia Al'Italiana", then there seems to be a never ending number of titles available on YouTube from the classic period of the late 50's and 60's to suit your appetite, of which "Il Sorpasso" is one.

I stumbled on this film by chance and was instantly hooked by the preview featuring two men in an open-topped sports car followed by the brief synopsis by the uploader that described it as a classic of the genre by a director, Dino Risi, who I had not heard of up to that point and who appears to be yet another master of the genre worth exploring.

The plot of "Il Sorpasso" is simple - Vittorio Gassman's "Bruno" opens the film as a devil-may-care charmer driving his sports-car at speed through the deserted streets of Rome on a hot summer's day. Shutters are up on all the shopfronts and the streets are devoid of people.

He stops and tries to make a phone call by reaching through the closed shutters of a shop, which proves to be unsuccessful, before zooming off again. After stopping in front of a block of apartments he notices a young man - Jean Louis Trintignant as "Roberto", a law student studying for an exam - at a window and asks if he can use his phone to make a call.

Robert reluctantly allows Bruno to enter his apartment to use his phone, which he does, and this sets in motion the events that follow. Bruno, a boisterous and domineering charmer, insinuates himself on Roberto, who is too weak-willed to resist, and within a short space of time he has persuaded the bookish young man to accompany him on a joy ride as a break from study.

The scenario of two complete opposites on a journey together is what fuels the comedy as Roberto is at the mercy of Bruno and his impulsive behaviour. As the story plays out Bruno is revealed to have traits that are completely at odds with the cultured, educated Roberto - a boorish charmer with a gift for persuasion, especially where women are concerned, and which occasionally tips into casual racism and disrespect for religion and culture and yet is also inexplicably simultaneously endearing - it's a standout performance in fact, by Gassman.

The device of a voice-over monologue is used for moments when Roberto is revealing his doubts about Bruno and his attempts at extricating himself from his new companion, who seems intent on ensuring that he accompany him for the remainder of his intended journey to some destination, wherever that may be.

As the Bruno drives his car at hair-raising speed out of Rome and into the surrounding countryside, honking his car horn at everything and anyone on the way, Roberto becomes increasingly concerned that he has no idea if and when he will get back to his apartment, and Bruno is disconcertingly vague and seems to enjoy Roberto's predicament.

Without continuing with a blow by blow account of the plot it suffices to say that it has some hilarious moments as Roberto is dragged into various scrapes by Bruno, some involving women who catch Bruno's roving eye on the way - one of whom is Bruno's daughter (Catherine Spaak) though he previously claims to be single, and with whom Roberto shares a fleeting attraction - and where it seems to Roberto as if he has reached a point of no return as Rome and his apartment become a literal distant memory.

I won't spoil the ending but this is justifiably a classic of the genre, primarily for the simple plot and where most of the action takes place on a moving car shot for the most part on location ie without back-projections.

The plot reminded me of a very similar situation that I found myself in some years ago when I was talked into driving an erstwhile film producer and his girlfriend to a celebrity party in London with the promise of entry and no tickets, the conclusion being that we didn't get in, in spite of his increasingly bizarre efforts to do so.

It's clear that the underpinning of many "Commedia Al'Italiana" films is the Catholic religion, with plots often leading to some moral point, perhaps best summed up in "Boccaccio 70" across four short stories that focus on the sins of the flesh, or "Divorce Italian Style" and its' themes of lust and adultery, and the common factor of the inevitability of retribution.

The character of Bruno in "Il Sorpasso" represents an unbridled lust for living that acknowledges no boundaries and respects no social norms and Roberto is an unwitting and unwilling passenger on a trajectory that he has no control over, performing the role of the audiences' conscience and with no idea of the outcome.

"Il Sorpasso", Dir: Dino Risi, 1962

Available to view on Youtube with subtitles :


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