Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Film Review: Il Sorpasso (1962)

Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant.
A great movie can be forgiven one big error. In fact, it may be the definition of a great film that it can withstand a major misstep. Vertigo is superb despite Kim Novak, The Big Sleep is a classic without a comprehensible plot, and then there's Il Sorpasso; it's a great film that's marred only by an ending that's totally out of sync with what's come before. More on that later, and there will be a major spoiler.

One hot Sunday in August in Rome, law student Roberto is leaning out of his apartment window and is spotted by Bruno, who is driving around looking for some friends he was supposed to meet. He asks to use Roberto's phone and in no time flat Bruno has dragged Roberto away from his studies for an impromptu road trip into the countryside around Rome. They are a sharply-defined odd couple. Roberto is studious and uptight, Bruno is a bon vivant, scamster, prankster, and the sort of guy who'll show you the best time of your life but he'll have to borrow your money to do it. The trip takes them to beach resorts, clubs, roadside bars, and a couple of family reunions. Vittorio Gassmann plays Bruno and his performance is one for the ages. Bruno is a force of nature who tries to extract from each moment of life a joke, a prank, a sharp deal, a good meal, or a seduction. He's narcissistic to his core, but he also likes to see other people living the same life as himself. As much as you know it would be the wrong thinng to do, it's hard not thinking it would be great to spend a day and a night with Bruno.

The character of Roberto, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is completely overshadowed by Bruno, which isn't surprising, but it adds to the problem with the ending. Roberto only comes out of his shell in the last few minutes of the film (attenzione! spoiler coming!) when he urges Bruno, who's already a reckless driver, to go faster. The car goes over a cliff and Roberto dies and Bruno lives. Roll credits. Nothing prepares you for this, although to be fair, there are some elements in the film that foreshadow a darker side to Bruno's lifestyle. The problem is that we haven't begun to care much for Roberto because he keeps his head down for almost the entire film. His death just comes across as nothing more than a twisted joke or a failure on the part of the scriptwriter to come up with a smarter ending. What's come before has been mostly funny, ebullient, giddy and sentimental, so the tragic ending seems like a clumsy attempt to add some gravitas to what's been mostly a frothy film.

Putting aside the ending, Il Sorpasso is a madly entertaining film that also looks great. The Italy in this film is shiny, new, glossy, sexy and bursting with life. This period in recent Italian history is known as the "Years of Cement," when the country was being feverishly rebuilt and the average citizen was beginning to enjoy a consumer lifestyle. The look of the film offers what was undoubtedly an idealized vision of contemporary Italy, and that probably accounts for its status as film that's still beloved in Italy, but largely unknown elsewhere.


the guy on the couch said...

I agree with you on the ending. Some have argued that it helps make a point about Italy's economy at the time, that every boom is followed by a bust. Narratively, though, it marks a jarring change in tone for the film, and it really does feel like a screenwriting cop-out. Still a hilarious, classic film, though.

Cary Watson said...

I've read the economic explanation, too, but it still feels too contrived.