Judge Daryl Loomis once drove to Paris, Texas, just to see the cowboy hat atop the Eiffel Tower.
It's always worth it.
The 1960s were the height of car culture in the United States and, quickly, our obsession became that of the world, especially in Europe. This led to a propagation of what would come be known as the road movie. There were plenty made in this country before and after this time frame, but these things were really popular across the pond, especially in Germany, with the early work of Wim Wenders, and in Italy, where the genre reached its pinnacle in 1962 with the release of Il Sorpasso. This is the standard-bearer of road movies, but has been forgotten on home video. That has now changed, as Criterion has once again brought a classic out of obscurity with a gorgeous new Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
Brash, frivolous, and middle-aged, Bruno (Vittorio Gassman, La Tosca) does what he wants when he wants and, right now, he's getting ready for a drive. He's offended, though, when he meets Roberto (Jean-Louis Tritignant, The Great Silence), a shy young college student, who would rather study for his exams than have a good time. Bruno can't bear to just leave him doing something boring like that, so drags Roberto along with him. From Rome to Tuscany, Bruno acts like an ass, much to Roberto's chagrin, but through all their differences, they find themselves becoming fast friends.
The title of Il Sorpasso refers to the act of passing somebody in your car, an aggressive and seemingly insane act that occurs often during this running time. Honking, tailgating, swerving to avoid oncoming traffic, all in the service of getting twelve feet farther down the road than the next guy. But it's the inherent machismo of this action that best describes the character of Bruno. Consequences be damned, he has a goal and he will achieve it, no matter once. This is as true in making a pass on the road as it is making a pass at a waitress. He doesn't think; he acts.
That's why Roberto winds up being such a strong foil for Bruno. He only thinks, questioning every action and motivation, to the extent that we wind up hearing his thoughts in voice over assessing the situation at hand. We never hear Bruno's internal musings, likely because they don't exist. As it is with Roberto, we just watch Bruno and react to what he does, whether it's selfishness, generosity, boorishness, or kindness. He's liable to act in whatever way he sees fit; Roberto's reactions are the meat of the first part of the movie.
As the pair travels, though, it becomes clear that, for all of Bruno's rashness and all of Roberto's trepidation, there must be some common ground and that is where the story heads. Anybody who has ever gone on a road trip with somebody knows that common ground must be met for it to work. In Il Sorpasso, this initially takes the form of Roberto opening up and having fun with whatever situation arises, but Bruno eventually learns some stuff, as well. This is especially true when they wind up with Bruno's family; his estranged wife doesn't hate him, but wants nothing to do with him, and his daughter, whom he doesn't recognize at first and hits on, who unilaterally forgives his prolonged absence and myriad transgressions because of genuine love.
The lessons aren't direct or obvious; they happen organically over time until the pair is joined at the hip. Through the episodes that make up this road trip, we learn right along with them and it all occurs very naturally. Few movies feel more right than this, and much of the credit goes to Gassman and Tritignant in their roles. Gassman is a big, physical presence onscreen, a handsome rogue who must have thrilled female audiences, despite his behavior, which is alternately jerky and charming. This is an early role for Tritignant, who wouldn't develop into a sex symbol until later, but in spite of his own obvious handsomeness, downplays it for a more nebbish feel.
Certainly, given that it's two guys in a car much of the time, the performances are paramount and both deliver, but without Risi's measured direction, this comedy wouldn't fly. The movie is never slow and always gorgeous, thanks to the photography by Alfio Contini (Zabriskie Point), which takes us down the road from Rome to Tuscany, through cities and country. It's a tour of Italy that anyone would want to experience, and it looks fantastic here. To top it off, the fun, jazzy score by Riz Ortolani (Mondo Cane) keeps everything moving very well. Il Sorpasso is brilliant all the way around and truly one of the greatest road comedies ever produced.
Criterion's Il Sorpasso (Blu-ray) is as good as one can hope. The 1.85/1080p image looks fantastic. The contrast is sharp with bright, clean whites and deep black levels that show crisp, fine detail throughout. Depth is nearly perfect, the grain structure is natural and accurate, and there is absolutely no evidence of damage or dirt on the print. Really, this is as good as it could possibly be under this format. The mono sound isn't as spectacular, but it's an accurate mix that performs very well. Dynamic range is probably as good as it can get through a single channel, with dialog and music always clear, while all the honking and engine revving is very strong.
Extras, while not as numerous as some Criterion releases, are very good.
• An introduction by Alexander Payne, director of Sideways, gives some context to the film and describes why Il Sorpasso is such an influence on him.
• A twenty-minute interview with Risi from 2004. He discusses the ins and outs of the production of the film, from its inception to its completion, including the controversy behind the film's ending.
• Ten minutes with Jean-Louis Tritignant from 1983. This was conducted as its own introduction to a television airing of the film, and the actor gives further context to how he got involved in the production.
• A fifteen minute talk with screenwriter Ettore Scola, who worked extensively with the director, in which he discusses some of the socio-political ideas behind the film.
• Another fifteen with film scholar Remi Fournier Lanzoni, who takes a modern approach to the film, discussing the history of the genre and the specifics of this film in particular.
• Excerpts from Back to Castiglioncello, a 2012 documentary that returns to some of the locations from the film and elicits comments from the cast and crew.
• A Beautiful Vacation, an hour-long 2006 documentary on the life and career of Risi for his ninetieth birthday. This is an excellent piece of work.
• Speaking with Gassman a thirty-minute 2005 documentary by Risi's son, in which he details the long and complicated relationship between the director and the lead actor.
• Trailer and customary text booklet, featuring essays on the film and musings from Risi.
The road movie might not carry the same resonance today that it did at its height, but Il Sorpasso still hits home today, half a century after its release. The great performances and beautiful location photography underscore an excellent story that feels as real and true as it must have on its initial release. Criterion's top flight Blu-ray seals the deal as one of the best catalog releases so far this year. Highly recommended.
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