Bruno Cortona is a middle-aging hedonistic fellow, seemingly unattached, self-centered, oblivious to social convention, whose signature method of self-expression is to zip through a highway at reckless speed in his Lancia Aurelia convertible. He impresses into his company for two days and nights a new acquaintance, a shy, serious young law student, Roberto. Together, beginning in Rome, they hit the road, visit their families, and (at least presumably) learn something about themselves by learning about each other. The summertime adventure costs one of them his life.
Dino Risi won the directorial prize at Mar del Plata for Il sorpasso, which he co-wrote with Ettore Scola and Ruggero Maccari. It is sometimes misidentified as a “road picture”; it lacks the balance between cosmic wandering and illusory micro-mission(s) that authentic examples of the genre, such as Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950) and Federico Fellini’s La strada (1954), both also from Italy, demonstrate. Rather, it is a tragicomedy expressing anxiety over the possibly fragile nature of Italy’s postwar economic recovery, given the period of economic duress it followed, and a reflection of the shift in Italy from family-oriented tradition to more isolated and solitudinous forms of social and individual expression. For instance, Il sorpasso is more a film of parties than of family dinners—if you will, of hard liquor than of wine. Bruno’s car exudes the consumerism that has gripped Italian society.
Vittorio Gassman (best actor, both Italian critics and the industry’s David di Donatello Award) and Jean-Louis Trintigant play Bruno and Roberto—and the visual contrast between their sizes argues for one’s responsibility to look after the other. Bruno takes Roberto “under his wing,” all right, but he does so to justify his own empty, shallow lifestyle rather than to help Roberto. The repressed homosexuality that some reviewers see in Bruno misses the point. Bruno’s manner—coarse, loud, swaggering—closets his mental terrain of self-doubt. Indeed, everything must take a back seat to his drive to buoy up himself, to shore up his fragile ego. One, for example, is initially appalled by the lack of gallantry Bruno displays when he tells Roberto privately, after Roberto has met his ex-wife, “You should have seen her a few years ago”—meaning, she is not much to look at now (now that we are no longer together), but she used to be beautiful. Of course, what Bruno is principally doing here is bolstering his own ego; knocking his ex-wife is merely a means to that driven end. This exemplifies Bruno’s constant modus operandi.
Bruno loses both his car and his new friend. His irresponsibility is complete. I am tired of reading reviews which assume that Roberto’s death has morally educated Bruno’s soul. What we see at the end may not be what it appears to be. A mask of responsibility may have replaced Bruno’s mask of irresponsibility.
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