In 1962 the trajectory of Italian comedy drastically changed, largely as the result of one poignant film, Il Sorpasso. An ironic and bitter trip around Italy during the economic boom of the early Sixties, Il Sorpasso marks a milestone in the work of director Dino Risi, who has widely been considered as the Italian Billy Wilder and as a leader in the narrative cinema of his era.
The plot is of the film quick-paced ― the protagonists run fast and with no stops on the way. Bruno Cortona is played by a memorable Vittorio Gassman, and the young student Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), becomes the symbol of Italian well-off society. The road and the trip are co-protagonists of a biting story that represents a ruthless criticism of the widespread lifestyles and behaviors of the time:
“You know who I saw in Amalfi? Jacqueline Kennedy, she’s sexy.”
And so the movie begins in a sultry desert during mid-August in Rome, and tragically ends on the coast of Tuscany the day after.
The Lancia Aurelia B24, with its unique-sounding horn, replaces the old Western caravans and becomes a roaring means of transport to symbolize virility, anxiety, fear, and uncertainties in an emotional escalation that embraces the futuristic obsession for neo-realism and the comedy of manners.
In a period of general wealth, Risi is able to play with the two main characters, by means of a difficult game of contrasts, in order to magnificently show the past (Roberto), the present (Bruno), and the future of the nation (which is waiting for the two protagonists behind a dangerous bend).
“Ah Robe, don’t worry about sadness! You know what’s the best of times? Let me tell you: it’s the time you’re living in, day by day until you die, that’s clear.”
The car speeds along, from the city to the coast through the countryside; the music of the time (Peppino di Capri, Edoardo Vianello, and Domenico Modugno) thoroughly creates unforgettable cinematic scenes all the way through.
And the landscape, mixed with poignant existential malaise, becomes just as significant as an actor (although in a supporting role). All the settings play a role, from the sunny and empty Rome to the tragic Calafuria bend right after the village of Quercianella, on the Tuscany coast.
“Every encounter is short-lived; a short step in an aimless journey that always sends them back to the car, an escape from a reality, which, despite everything, continues to press onwards.”
The road as a physical space makes the film a very rare example of a typical road trip movie that runs across spaces, and metaphorically through social classes. It set the standard for the genre, to the extent that it set the precedent for Dennis Hopper and his cult classic Easy Rider.
Via Aurelia, the arterial road starting from Rome and stretching towards Fregene and Northern Lazio, has always represented an absolute milestone for Romans: the way to holiday and escape, creating a sense of well-being in several respects.
Leaving Rome, we drive out of the city and reach different country towns: Anzio, with its pine groves; and Civitavecchia, whose port is the set of a beautiful scene, where the restaurant portrayed highlights the cult of food, one of the many stereotypes that Risi and the two screenwriters Ettore Scola and Ruggero Maccari examine.
Going North during their sorrowful wander with no destination, Bruno and Roberto drive out of Lazio and arrive in Tuscany: the cities of Grosseto, Castiglioncello and Capalbio are the places where their adventure will reach its end. Bruno, says:
“I like Modugno, this man in white tie makes me go crazy because it at first seems like a trivial song, but actually, there is everything in it: loneliness, incommunicability, and that other ‘trendy’ thing… alienation, like in Antonioni’s films. Did you see L’Eclisse? I fell asleep… Antonioni is clearly a good director!”