I've seen quite a few Italian films from the very early 1960s that explore the effect of widespread industrialisation and rampant consumerism during the economic boom in contemporary Italy. It is very interesting to notice the attitude of each filmmaker to this particular issue. Ermanno Olmi in 'Il Posto' doesn't completely denounce the changes taking place in Italy(urban Italy to be more precise), but he does ornament the film with a rich sense of melancholy and a yearning for innocence in a place and time where a boy is forced to lose his youth prematurely. Fellini in 'La Dolce Vita' for the most part uses farce and overt loud farcical scenes to mock the superficial nature of the elite class and the aristocracy, and then juxtaposes that with scenes which spell out their loneliness. Antonioni in 'L'Avventura' uses a coldness to express the protagonist's alienation in the new times. Dino Risi's attitude is distinct too because he remains ambivalent and indecisive since he neither condemns, nor embraces the new Italy. Among all the films I've mentioned, the one that I gravitate to the most will be 'Il Posto' which I think is a stone cold masterpiece. But I have to say Risi's 'Il Sorpasso' comes very close to replicating the kind of reaction that 'Il Posto' got out of me. This is a near-masterpiece.
In a basic sense, 'Il Sorpasso' is a road movie. Just like other films belonging to the sub-genre of 'Commedia all'italiana', it uses light-hearted comedy and comedic scenarios to move the narrative forward. However I'd disagree with anyone who thinks the film doesn't have enough thematic depth beneath the comedic surface. The film uses the 'odd couple' trope by bringing two completely dissimilar people together and explores their differences and the effects they have on each other. Bruno is an energetic, boisterous, eccentric and potentially reckless individual who believes in living in the moment. Roberto on the other hand who is shy, introverted, self-conscious, reserved and a somewhat uptight individual. Bruno, just like the force of nature he is, takes Roberto on a ride in a thematic as well as literal sense. There is a risk, that using the juxtaposition of two such characters of extreme contrast, might end up being a little too on-the-nose and superficial. But what prevents it from becoming jarring, is Dino Risi's sensitive treatment of both characters and of course absolutely masterful performances from the two central actors. Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant are absolutely pitch perfect in this film. I believed in their chemistry and both characters felt like living breathing human beings.
Yes, Bruno and Roberto are humanised by Risi as well as the actors. But it is undeniable that they also serve as the representations of two different Italies. Bruno represents the new modernised Italy. He is loud, he is energetic and he pretty much has no time for sentimentality(he disrespects Christian priests and nuns). Roberto represents the pre-economic boom Italy with his regard for discipline, an organised lifestyle and sentiments. Dino Risi as I have mentioned before neither vilifies nor glorifies either of them. Bruno can be an ignorant jerk, but he can be sympathetic as well as a good friend to Roberto too. Roberto is well mannered and disciplined, but he can be far too tentative and awkward in his social attitude. I especially loved how the film takes its time to throw more light on the lives of both the characters apart from what can be picked up from their behavioral traits. Bruno enlightens Roberto on how the memories of his childhood could be a little too idealised and distorted and his relatives might not have been what he remembered them to be. On the other hand, the film also gives us a look into the consequences and a possible future that awaits for someone who lives life with the same irreverent, carefree attitude like Bruno when his family gets introduced. The great thing is, these elements in the narrative work both on a character-specific level as well as on a broader societal level.
I have only two gripes with the film that prevents me from giving it a perfect score - one very minor, the other somewhat major. The minor complaint will be the use of Roberto's voice-over narrations that appear from time to time in the film which I think was completely unnecessary. Trintignant's subtle mannerisms and gestures were enough to convey everything that needed to be conveyed. I don't think his thoughts required to spelled out. But the major gripe I have is the final scene - not the ultimate finale of the scene that ends the film, but a certain turn, a certain transformation that takes place in the attitude of one of the characters. The ultimate consequence serves a thematic purpose since it conveys that sometimes forcing someone to change his inherent traits, ideas and attitude could end up proving to be problematic. But I think the turn itself needed a little more time and few more scenes underlining the transition gradually taking place to feel completely believable.
One or two gripes aside, I genuinely think 'Il Sorpasso' is a special film that explores that consequences of Italy's economic boom and finds a way to do it in a very sensitive, humane and funny way. Highly Recommended.
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