Drivers’ Cinema: Il Sorpasso (1962)
Dino Risi, the late Italian writer-director nominated for an Academy Award for writing the original Italian version of Scent of a Woman also directed The Easy Life (Il Surpasso). Many film cognoscenti point to this movie as one of the high points of the filmmaking period known as ‘Commedia all’italiana’ (‘Comedy, Italian style’), and as the first Italian road trip movie. In an interview, Dennis Hopper said that he and Peter Fonda were inspired by it when making the iconic Easy Rider, high praise indeed.
The film starts with the chance meeting of Bruno Fortuna (Vittorio Gassman), a close to middle-aged but still happy-go-lucky type (who adores his white roadster, a 1958 Lancia Aurelia B24 convertible, almost as much as he does women and the ‘easy life’), and Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an uptight, young Roman law student. After Roberto invites Bruno to use his home phone (remember the days before mobile phones?), Bruno invites the younger man out for drinks to thank him for his hospitality, and before Roberto knows it, the evening turns into a two day road trip along the Via Aurelia (and which happens to give the iconic car they drive its name), a Roman road that runs along the coast of Lazio and Tuscany. Little does Roberto know at the beginning of the journey that he will fast become Bruno’s protégé, and emerge from his shell, but this will come with consequences.
Throughout their journey, Bruno and Roberto hit restaurants, beaches, dance floors as well as older places that are more familiar to the characters. The soundtrack features all the hits of the period. The music and the car make you want to hit the road, take the top down (if you have one to take down), and turn up the tunes. Ahhh, and speaking of that beautiful car that comes to signify Bruno’s somewhat sorry condition—the body is dented, the fenders different hues—but listen to the engine and transmission as they go through the gears. Magnifico! The spirit still soars. The Lancia Aurelia features as prominently as any of the characters of the movie and Risi burns a lot of celluloid as he displays the sleek (but battered) bodywork. An interesting facet of this movie is that the driving scenes were filmed on the road, in the car versus against a projected backdrop, as was commonplace during filmmaking during this time period.
Along the way, the general mood of the movie’s era is revealed. In this case, the feeling is one of social unrest caused by the Italian economic miracle of the ‘60s, and how Italy was still recuperating from World War II and fascism’s poverty and devastation in the early 1960s. There are haves and have-nots in this newly rebuilt society, and both Bruno and Roberto are reflected in this social unrest, their personalities a study in contrasts. Bruno, his car aside, is a portrait of a person who just floats through life, while Roberto is uneasy, shy, and timid. Bruno is a portrait of brashness, and consumerism, while Roberto represents the old guard whose eyes are opened by his ‘mentor’.
On first glance or viewing, one may think that The Easy Life is a more or less carefree comedy about an odd couple on a road trip, the straight man taken for a ride by his wilder counterpart. But, like so many films of this era, there is a deeper subtext bubbling under the surface of the journey these two men take, a journey that comes to an abrupt end in the final scene, and will make you think of Easy Rider.
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