Road movies, like the picaresque novels from which we can trace their origins, all have basically the same plot. A group of people—and a simple duo is best—jump in the car (or hop on their horses) and have episodic mini-adventures, meeting strange people and learning about life. At the end, the travelers are theoretically wiser to the ways of the world and are hopefully better people.
Dino Risi’s delightful 1962 road film Il Sorpasso, recently made available on Region 1 DVD by the Criterion people, follows in this grand tradition. It depicts Kerouackian bon-vivant Bruno (Vittorio Gassman, in a volcanic performance) and straight-laced student Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as they drive around central Italy. Bruno and Roberto have met by chance and Roberto, yielding to impulse as he rarely does, accepts Bruno’s invitation to go out to eat with him. This simple goal evolves into a two-day escapade during which they will flirt with women, drive recklessly, and deal with family issues, all animated by Bruno’s great appetite for fast living, which carries along everyone and everything in its wake.
Il Sorpasso is distinguished by dazzling black-and-white cinematography and consistently elegant compositions. The Italy of the film is hot and sun-blasted; Rome itself is especially white and glare-y and seemingly abandoned, as we see in the opening shots of the movie, when Bruno drives solo through a deserted city. There’s a great sequence midway through the film where Bruno and Roberto visit the latter’s aunt and uncle at their rural estate. Roberto has fond childhood memories of the place and is eager to re-explore it. As he does so, the camera captures the open, almost Japanese-style architecture of the house, and all the places where the sunshine penetrates inside and reflects off the bright white walls. This is in contrast to sanctuaries of shade within the house, which seem to convey the melancholy that Roberto encounters upon realizing that the place “looked a lot bigger” when he was a child.
This sequence also provides us with a good comparison of Bruno and Roberto’s ways of perceiving the world. Roberto, for all his intelligence—the beginning of the film finds him studying some very dry legal formulae and we gather swiftly that his is a serious, studious mindset—fails to grasp things that Bruno understands swiftly and intuitively. When the travel companions are greeted by the house’s caretaker, a man whom Roberto has known for years and Bruno for seconds, Bruno immediately concludes that the man is gay. When he calls Roberto’s attention to this—“I’ve never seen a country queen before,” because in the era before political correctness, people were just free to say terrible things—Roberto is initially taken aback, but then realizes that Bruno is right. Bruno carries out a similar deductive performance later on in their visit, concluding that Roberto’s cousin’s father is not his uncle, but rather the overseer. Again, Roberto has known these people intimately for years, and this has never occurred to him. It took Bruno’s more intuitive way of seeing things to enlighten him.
While the first half of the film is fairly cheerful and lighthearted, it takes an interesting, more melancholy turn as things progress. We meet Bruno’s estranged wife and his daughter whom he rarely gets to see, and it becomes evidence that his high living has come at a high personal cost for him. He’s not the type to let it show how much it’s hurt him, but it certainly puts things in perspective. If the film thus far has been telling us—as Roberto’s real-world counterparts—to “loosen up, goddam it!”, it has now added the qualifier, “But not without some restraint!” Which is good, because I like my comedy served up with a dash of contemplative sadness.