There were plenty of Road Movies before “Il Sorpasso,” and there have been plenty since, but I would have to say that this is one of the best. The winning performances combined with organic camera work place you right there in the car with the characters, the wind in your hair and the open road ahead. Except the road isn't open, of course. It's choked with vacationing Italians, which is where the title comes in. “Il Sorpasso” is Italian for overtaking, as in passing another car on the highway, which the main characters do repeatedly in this film. Ultimately, all of this reckless speeding and passing is seen to be a metaphor for post-war Italian society.
The film starts with Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) driving a sporty convertible ( a Lancia Aurelia, it turns out) around a ghost-town version of Rome, emptied out by the mid-August holiday. Searching for a phone to call his friends, Bruno winds up meeting a young student, Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Having missed his friends, Bruno impetuously invites Roberto to grab a meal with him, and the shy, serious Roberto allows himself to be cajoled into this stranger's roadster and whisked off for a weekend of adventure.
“Il Sorpasso” follows the classic, road-trip, buddy-film formula, or perhaps the film created it. Bruno is impetuous, outgoing, and garrulous. He is always up for a new adventure, and he treats everyone he meets as a friend, including bumming money off them. Roberto is quiet and introverted, and spends much of the trip trying to figure out how to just get back to his quiet apartment and his books. The two have chemistry, however, and Roberto gradually opens up under Bruno's constant urging. How could he not? Bruno is reckless, but he has the luck of the madman, and life seems more fun inside his bubble of insouciance.
Vittorio Gassman plays Bruno with an abandon and physicality that remind me of Vince Vaughn in the movie “Swingers.” One can easily imagine Bruno saying “You're so money, and you don't even know it.” Jean-Louis Trintignant is also excellent in the more subtle role of Roberto, but it is clearly the Bruno character whom I will remember long-term. It's also worth mentioning Catherine Spaak, who plays Bruno's daughter. In a film chock-full of Italian beauties, she stands out.
In a film as funny and delightful as this, it is shocking when, at the end, the tone turns suddenly serious and grim. For me, it's a serious flaw. Some commentators defend the ending as a necessary punctuation to what is an allegorical commentary on post-War Italian society. Italy enjoyed a sustained economic boom during the 50's and 60's which transformed Italian society, and “Il Sorpasso” was part of an artistic movement to critique what many saw as the reckless individualism and consumerism of that time. Viewed in that context, the ending does make some sense, and perhaps the jarring change of tone is meant as a warning. Nonetheless, it left a bad taste in my mouth after what was otherwise a highly enjoyable movie experience.
Despite the unsatisfying ending, “Il Sorpasso” is well worth watching, and probably worth a repeat viewing. The memorable performances, beautiful cinematography, and that cool roadster make for an unforgettable film. Maybe it's supposed to be an allegory, but what I will remember is the feeling of a beautiful, sunny weekend, the top down, and the freedom to go wherever your caprice takes you.
3.5 stars out of 5