Buried toward the end of the liner notes for Criterion’s new dual-format release of Il Sorpasso is a brief excerpt from the memoir of its director, Dino Risi—a sample that succinctly captures the soul of both the film and the wave of post-war Italian comedies it’s come to represent. Borrowed from a chapter called “He died of the illness called life,” the passage concludes with Risi sharing the pep talk he gave Il Sorpasso star Vittorio Gassman during one of their last conversations, when the once irrepressible actor was near the end of his life and had long since lost his lust for it:
When I am depressed, I imagine that I’m dead and the lord of the hereafter has granted me a week’s vacation to spend on this earth. I can assure you that everything I see seems wonderful, even the dirty streets, the stench of fuel oil, ugly women, rude drivers, the weak coffee at certain bars, debates on TV.
Vittorio looked at me, smiled his lovely sad smile, and said: “It’s not so easy.”
Driven by some of the same filmmakers who were responsible for the severe neorealism that defined Italy’s post-war cinema, Commedia all’Italiana (comedy, Italian style) was a conscious response to the economic boom that began to sweep the country in the late 1950s. Rambunctious, belligerent, and broadly popular films like Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal On Madonna Street, Pietro Germi’s Seduced And Abandoned, and Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso bellowed with the pent up energy of a country coming back from the dead. Crucially, however, the directors who galvanized the movement were careful not to lose their perspective amid the hedonistic euphoria. Risi’s masterpiece, Il Sorpasso, isn’t just the crowning jewel of Commedia all’Italiana. It also epitomizes how these films mined beauty from cynicism and indelibly expressed what Phillip Lopate’s booklet essay calls “the joys of disillusionment.”
A Lancia Aurelia convertible peels through the empty streets of Rome on the morning of August 15th, the nationally observed holiday of Ferragosto. The man behind the wheel is Bruno (Gassman), a manic pixie dream brute with the square jaw of a statue, the boundless energy of a horse, and the attention span of a horny teenage boy. When Bruno charms the shy, uptight student Roberto (a well cast but horribly dubbed Jean-Louis Trintignant) into letting him use his phone, a reluctant favor turns into a delirious two-day road trip through the Italian countryside, the unlikely pair forming a sweet but unsustainable bond. (The actors became fast friends in real life, as Trintignant explains in a 1983 TV interview included on the Criterion disc).
As the odd couple bombs down the Via Aurelia, Bruno blaring his car’s rather musical horn at anyone close enough to hear it, Il Sorpasso quickly spikes the misguided notion that classic comedies can’t age well. Shot with the same wild vigor that streaked the punk films of Japanese contemporaries like Koreyoshi Kurahara, Il Sorpasso ultimately plays like a compulsively watchable, preemptive cross between Alexander Payne’s Sideways and Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End. While Risi’s classic is a rather explicit commentary on life during Italy’s “economic miracle” and the art that the boom inspired, Payne’s video introduction—in which he details the effect that the film had on him—is a fitting testament to the timeless pleasures that make Il Sorpasso as vital and valuable as any of the major titles that Criterion has released this year.
To that point, it’s crucial that the movie is still hilarious. Bruno and Roberto’s various flings and misadventures are informed by a universally brutal honesty, and Gassman’s motormouthed performance is like a rubber-band ball made out of Vince Vaughn’s unrealized potential. Risi knew how to get the best out of Gassman; they collaborated on 15 films together, and their working relationship is insightfully explored in the supplement Speaking With Gassman, a 2005 documentary by Risi’s son.
The film is made all the more accessible by how well its vapidly experiential culture dovetails with our own. Unlike some of the more revered films of the time, Il Sorpasso is genuinely amused by the frivolity it depicts, and Bruno’s behavior is every bit as charming as it is vile (and it gets pretty vile). Satirical but never scolding, the movie is entertaining because Risi understands the importance of having fun. It’s enduringly great because he also understands that no one is having enough of it.