Opens Fri., April 4 at Varsity. Not rated. 102 minutes.
Rarely screened in the U.S., newly restored for its Criterion DVD release later this month, this 1962 Italian road comedy was a huge hit at home but virtually unseen here. Why? It came out during the art-house epoch of Fellini and Antonioni, whose L’Eclisse gets a succinct critique from Bruno (Vittorio Gassman): “I couldn’t keep my eyes open!” Speeding into the picture in his Lancia convertible (equipped with a record player!), the 40-year-old Bruno is open to everything in life. He flirts with every woman in sight; he drives like a maniac; he makes shady business deals on the fly; and he spontaneously befriends shy young law student Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), dragging him along on a weekend road trip.
Their picaresque circuit leads north from Rome, shuttered during August vacation, to various beach towns, restaurants, and clubs. Meanwhile we hear self-conscious Roberto’s interior monologues; he frets that he’s “too uptight,” the type who always looks before leaping. On one level, the lusty, vital Bruno will teach Roberto how to live in Il sorpasso, but Dino Risi’s film is far slyer than its odd-couple construct. In an astonishingly forceful and unfolding performance, Gassman reveals Bruno to be a man of depth and soul, not just some rogue. Equally, these antics show traditionalist Italy lurching into the ’60s. The space race, Jackie Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Sophia Loren are all referenced; yet a bikinied teen can also mock the brooding Roberto as “Young Werther”—Goethe and go-go dancing go together, along with pratfalls, philosophy, and young love.
Back to the issue of respect. Il Sorpasso is beloved by Martin Scorsese and Alexander Payne, who saw it decades after The New York Times misjudged the film as an “examination of an aimless wastrel and his destructive effect on an idealistic youngster.” Wrong and wrong. Nothing is wasted on Bruno, who opens Roberto’s eyes to life lived both high and low, where risk is inseparable from reward.