Mainly, it’s a question of speed. Two characters, one sports car, and as much velocity as you can muster on Italian freeways. Yet, it’s also about the speed of life, of desire, of language and gestures, and lines of flight away from the predictable and the mundane.

From the opening credit sequence we are literally propelled into the film by composer Riz Ortolani’s frenetic jazz score as it accompanies the images of a speeding sports car through an eerily depopulated Rome – images mildly reminiscent of Giorgio De Chirico’s canvases featuring solitary figures in hauntingly empty streets and buildings. If we haven’t already guessed, we soon learn that it is the period of Ferragosto (the month of August in which Italians traditionally take their summer vacations) and major cities resemble ghost towns as Italians decamp en masse to their favoured holiday destinations, mainly seaside resorts.

As Ortolani’s score – built around an escalating and ever spiralling series of notes that both capture the urgency of the moment and foreshadow some form of impending fatalism – comes to rest, so too does the car. The driver glimpses a young man facing out from his apartment window and asks him if he would be kind enough to put through a call to a given number and inform the respondent that the driver is running late for a prearranged appointment. And so begins, innoxiously enough, an adventure that starts with a meeting between two complete strangers on the suburban periphery of Rome (amongst the new housing developments that rapidly sprang up in the building boom of the postwar years) and ends a day later on a coastal road in Tuscany.

Dino Risi’s 1962 classic Il sorpasso brings together two individuals who live by differing tempos and rhythms ­– in short, one moves, the other doesn’t. The driver, Bruno Cortona (Vittorio Gassman), lives at an accelerated tempo, the motoring term being appropriate given he is mostly associated with his car, a Lancia Aurelia sport convertible, an iconic status symbol of the time. Significantly, his is somewhat less than in mint condition, which says much about Bruno’s personality and the shortfall between aspiration and reality. The young man, Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant), is a law student locked away in his apartment studying for his impending exams. His life is fundamentally sedentary, governed by habits and patterns of behaviour he is reluctant to stray from. One is extrovert, impulsive, acts on whims, is open to chance, the other, introverted, shy, pensive and cautious. Two characters, then, and therefore two Italies, for the two characters are not only individuals with their own destinies, but also resonate as allegorical figures for a nation at the crossroads, both literally and metaphorically.

Bruno’s entrance into Roberto’s life represents disturbance and disruption, and from that a growing disquiet about his life, the road taken, and the moral framework that has, to date, governed his actions. Bruno is literally chaos theory in action – a random element that disrupts an existing pattern, fracturing the particles and reconfiguring them into a new pattern. Much like the effect rapid modernisation and hyper-consumerism (or “neo-capitalism”, to use the term of its most ferocious critic Pier Paolo Pasolini) were having on Italy in the era of the so-called “economic miracle”.  Therefore the film’s title, Il sorpasso: on the one hand, a colloquial expression indicating the overtaking of one vehicle by another on the road (we see much of that in the film, to often hilarious effect), and on the other, its metaphoric use in reference to the accelerated economic progress made by the Italian nation. Not to be discounted is the possibility that the title also references Roberto’s character, as if his adventure on the road is also an “overcoming” of himself, a leaving behind of a former self – in moving forward, a new becoming. The middle-aged Bruno is and remains what he is from first to last: as one character puts it, “With Bruno, the first impression says it all”.

Pastoral Requiem

By 1962, the year of the film’s release, the nation had completed it transformation from a predominantly agrarian based economy to one of heavy industry and manufacturing, particularly centred in and a round the northern citiesof Milan and Turin. Modernism had meant that cities and metropolitan sensibilities had become the norm for most Italians. In a changing culture, where the balance of experiential life had swayed from the rural to the urban, Il sorpasso is decidedly on the side of the later. So much so, that the film’s most caustic and satirical barbs are reserved for rural regions and lifestyles. One long passage of the film is pointedly directed at a deconstruction of the pastoral ideal.

Il sorpasso

After having lunch in the port town of Civitavecchia (their itinerary being completely improvised on the go), Bruno and Roberto venture inland to visit Roberto’s uncle and aunt, who own a landed estate in the region of Grosetto, Tuscany. As they move towards their destination, Roberto waxes lyrical about his boyhood summers spent on the estate. These nostalgic memories are dear to Roberto, representing a period of his infancy in which he felt loved and happy. His reminiscences provide a quite detailed portrait of his experiences on the estate in those now long past summers. Such memories form a “time crystal” of the past, and by re-entering that “past” in the present he causes the memories to decompose.

When Roberto enters his uncle’s estate, he enters as the “boy within” the man recapturing a lost domain, however, step-by-step, each of his cherished boyhood memories dissolve. It’s not so much that the past is a foreign country, or that the kernels of memories are false, but rather that with the passing of time and the work of memory the past becomes idealised. In one of the film’s more lyrical moments, as Roberto wanders the rooms of the house – his childhood bedroom, his playrooms, etc. – in his mind’s eye he measures the shortfall between memory and reality. For Roberto, the house is little more than a mausoleum now, a place to bury his memories.

In many ways, with his astute ability to see through a situation, it’s Bruno that teases out the hidden family secrets, and thereby acts as a kind of “reality principle”, or corrective, to Roberto’s propensity to sentimentalise and idealise things. And, like much else, Bruno gets the final word on the film’s view on rural existence: “Live in the country? You’ve got to be crazy.” And yet, this “return to the past” is a crucial moment for Roberto, a turning point in which he sheds some unnecessary psychological baggage.

Young Werther in Italy

Late in the film, in a throwaway line that at first barely registers, a young woman alludes to Roberto as “Young Werther” in reference to The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s 18th century novel of unrequited love. Somewhat later, another young woman (there are so many in this film), in reference to Roberto’s inability to mix with the young swinging crowd, makes the comment, “So young and yet so old fashioned”. The economic miracle ushers in change, but what of the state of a culture’s libidinal economy? What kind of new sexual mores come into play? When it comes to desire, what exactly is “old-fashioned” and what new?

Like Werther, Roberto has a fixed object of desire, a girl named Valeria. He too, like Werther, over-idealises her. Valeria is a girl that lives in the apartment adjacent to his; too shy to ever speak to her he keeps his love a secret (this is all inferred, for she is a girl that is much discussed but never seen). In this new libidinal economy, romantic love seems out of place, a thing of the past. Bruno, not surprisingly, advises him not to tie himself down to one girl, but to play the field, so to speak. Desire is polyvalent. One pursues whoever takes your fancy, be it two German tourists, a waitress, a cashier at a pit stop bar, or a businessman’s wife. As, indeed, Bruno does, with a bemused Roberto in tow.

Roberto is not a moralist (he does not judge others), however, nor can he so easily insert himself into the sexual currency of the day. A romantic at heart (and therefore “old-fashioned” the film suggests), his one and only attempt at seduction arises, precisely, because he encounters a girl who resembles the idealised Valeria. It comes to nothing, but there is no other moment in the film in which Roberto is as relaxed, flirtatious and proactive in pursuit of a woman. Not that he lacks admirers, but he is too often either oblivious to their interest or too naïve to decode the signs of attraction.

Il sorpasso

Late in the film, Roberto finally finds the courage to contact Valeria. By this stage in the story, Bruno and Roberto find themselves at the beach resort of Castiglioncello on the Tuscan coast. In an outdoor bar a crowd of beach goers are dancing to a jukebox as Roberto searches for the public phone to put a call through to Valeria. This scene has a strange, almost trance-like tone, as Roberto very slowly glides through the dancers, both amongst them yet detached and alone at the same time. At a certain point, Roberto is framed with a young boy seated to the side (another non-dancer) watching the fun but not participating. The scene as a whole offers a definitive portrait-in-miniature of Roberto: life is there all around, but he can’t insert himself into the flow of a society in the midst of la dolce vita (on its initial English language release Il sorpasso was titled “The Easy Life”, a riff on the Fellini film). Retrospectively, one notices how, at crucial points, the film weaves brief cutaway shots to young boys as if a likeness to Roberto is being inferred – one of the last images we see is of young boy waving to him.

It would be easy to conclude that the film frames Roberto’s character around tropes of infancy – the child sheltered in an adult self ­– and Bruno’s as the man of experience, but that would be to underestimate the child/adult dynamic in respect to Bruno. If Roberto is the child of innocence, Bruno is the unruly, polymorphous perverse child: governed by the pleasure principle, continuously in search of instant gratification. In that sense, Bruno is representative of the economic miracle, or whatever else you’d like to call it ­­– the easy life, la dolce vita, consumer culture, neo-capitalism. Still, there’s a fascinating dynamic at play in Bruno between immaturity and psychological acumen ­– he is more often than not right in his judgments about people.

Il sorpasso is one of the jewels in the crown of the genre (we use the term tentatively here) known as commedia all’italiana, which more often than not devoted itself to charting the vicissitudes of a culture experiencing rapid modernisation and the eventual disillusion that resulted. Often cited as capturing an accurate picture of early ’60s Italy, this may in part be the result of the film adopting the road movie form ­­– an ever-moving vista of sights and sounds, inclusive of a broad cross-section of social classes, of regional landscapes and stereotypes, of seaside resorts and the pleasures of summer days and nights. Il sorpasso is an ever-moving canvas of the ebb and flow of the life of a nation over two summer days on the road.

Il sorpasso will be screening at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival (31 July – 17 August) as part of a program stream on commedia all’italiana. Find out more and purchase tickets at the MIFF website

About The Author

Rolando Caputo is co-editor of Senses of Cinema, and lectures on film and the creative arts at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.