Film Edumacation: Italian Road Movie “Il Sorpasso” Is Everything

Tonight, April 10th, is your last chance to catch IL SORPASSO in theatres at the wonderful Cinefamily on Fairfax in West Hollywood. The last encore performance starts at 7:30 PM. Don’t miss it if you have the opportunity to see it!


I love movies. No matter what’s happening in my life (or isn’t), when I step into that dark, hopefully comfy theatre, I’m able to escape, decompress, and walk out inspired in some way, no matter the film. Maybe it was a line, a majestic landscape, a smile, a sweet rack, or just a wonderful, life-affirming experience. There isn’t an art form that hits me as hard and fast as movies. I see a lot of them, I “write” about them, and can’t get enough of them. But I have gaping blind spots in my movie knowledge, including foreign films. I don’t have anything against them; I know I’m ignorant (does that help my case?), but who has the time? I know hardly anything about Italian cinema, besides knowing that Federico Fellini is a God, and that Dario Argento and the giallo movement profoundly influenced American horror. I have a feeling that’s going to change.

Enter IL SORPASSO (1962) this past Tuesday evening.

Very rarely these days do you get a chance to stumble into a movie theater without expectations, or knowledge of the plot, actors or behind the scenes squabbles. I highly recommend doing it, if you’re able. That was the rare opportunity I was given when I purchased tickets to IL SORPASSO earlier this week at the Silent Movie Theatre (or the Cinefamily). The film has mostly been lost to American audiences, but thanks to a lovingly crafted DCP (digital cinema package) restoration of the print by Janus Films, IL SORPASSO has been given another shot.

In Cinefamily’s monthly newsletter, IL SORPASSO is hailed as one of the greatest films OF ALL-TIME, the kind of hype that normally falls flat on its face. That recommendation got me into the theatre, but I had no idea what, really, to expect.


What I got was a riotously funny, rousing buddy road movie that felt as real as it likely did in 1962 when it first came out. The film comes from writer-director Dino Risi, branded (rightfully so, I’d wager) the “maestro of Italian film comedy.” Immediately, you realize Risi has a gift for slapstick, free ranging dialogue, staging scenes, particularly those in a car. Risi is most familiar to American audiences because he was nominated for an Oscar in 1974 for his Adapted Screenplay of PROFUMO DI DONNA, or the original SCENT OF A WOMAN (with Vittorio Gassman instead of Al Pacino).

IL SORPASSO has the flimsiest of set-ups, but it works perfectly. Bruno Cortona (Vittorio Gassman) cruises around Rome, a shell of its former self due to the Holiday (whatever it is, it doesn’t matter), shops and restaurants closed, the hustle and bustle that Bruno thrives on conspicuous in their absence. He can’t even access a pay phone. Bruno stops, randomly, in front of an apartment building, where he meets Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was most recently the male lead in AMOUR), a young, shy, introverted law student.

Roberto invites Bruno up to make his phone call, despite his conscience telling him not to (a running gag throughout the proceedings), and then he can never get rid of him. Again, the phone call doesn’t matter: whomever he’s trying to reach is never reached, and it’s just a reason for Roberto and Bruno to meet, and for the wacky, weird and hilarious adventure to begin.


I say wacky because of the tone, and the bombastic, booming soundtrack that trumpets throughout (it’s one of the greatest I’ve ever heard, my favorite song is below). But IL SORPASSO isn’t zany because of its high stakes, bizarre hijinks. It never feels anything but authentic, as Bruno and Roberto don’t end up in RAT RACE or a HANGOVER movie. They meet Roberto’s extended family, they learn about one another, they try and fail to pick up chicks, they sing, they dance, they (maybe) become friends. But the tension never leaves. Is Bruno a con man, or nothing more than a lout who makes Roberto pay for things? Was it really a coincidence that Bruno found himself at Roberto’s apartment? Is Roberto playing an understated, lonely character, hoping to spring a trap on Bruno? Are they actually becoming friends, or do they can’t stand each other? It’s both, perhaps all of these things, and it’s gripping. In many ways, I think seeing IL SORPASSO now, after decades of road trip movies and topsy-turvy relationship dramas that inevitably inform your expectations, is likely even better.

IL SORPASSO is one of the best road trip movies ever precisely because there’s no destination in mind, at least not geographically speaking. Bruno wants fish soup, but really, he wants someone to eat fish soup with, he wants company, and a sounding board for his ridiculous observations and statements about the world. Bruno is all over the place, a fun-loving drifter, while Roberto studies alone in his apartment, daydreaming about the lovely girl across the street. They’re opposites, but both equally as lonely and desperate for someone else in the world, even if their whole day trip turns into something far more than that.

You know from the start something bad is going to happen, yet it’s abrupt, shocking and tragic when it finally strikes. It’s all in the title. IL SORPASSO translates to “overtaking,” which, on the surface, refers to Bruno’s dangerous driving habits. He’s always speeding, always passing cars (his annoying and hilarious car horn is practically the third biggest character), never taking the time to appreciate where he is, or what’s around him. This becomes all too clear when he learn about his family life, or lack thereof. “Overtaking” can also refer to unexpected misfortune, which is exactly what we’re prepared for in the opening credits. It’s a rare tone and expectation for such a funny movie, making it that much deeper an experience.

There are even babes.

There are even babes.

Vittorio Gassman is absolutely incredible, a comedic tour de force, rattling off ridiculous jokes like an Italian and far more attractive Vince Vaughn. It doesn’t get more over the top than his Bruno character, but he’s never anything but charming, and you can’t help but want to be just like him, as Roberto eventually succumbs into believing as well. Jean-Louis Trintignant is no less magnificent, but on an entirely different wavelength. He’s almost an observer, an audience stand-in, his monologued thoughts giving us insight into his mental state, because most of the time, we’re unsure where he stands, or what it is he’s thinking. He’s a chameleon, almost creepily so.

The innumerable driving scenes are impressively shot. You wouldn’t expect to feel uncomfortable, or feel claustrophobic while watching two dudes drive around a cramped automobile in a movie made in 1962, but you’re wincing along with Roberto as Bruno cuts corners and passersby. Dino Risi’s film doesn’t cut any corners, however, and the result is a masterpiece.

Tonight, April 10th, is your last chance to catch IL SORPASSO in theatres at the wonderful Cinefamily on Fairfax in West Hollywood. The last encore performance starts at 7:30 PM. Don’t miss it if you have the opportunity to see it!

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One Comment

  1. Franco Compagnoni

    Signore, sono italiano e mi complimento con lei per questa descrizione del mio film italiano preferito. Mi auguro che lei abbia potuto apprezzare tutti i dialoghi che sono davvero esilaranti.
    Cordiali saluti

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