Law student Roberto is bullied away from his desk when an obstreperous stranger, Bruno, barges into his apartment to use the phone, then drags meek Roberto out for a lunch that stretches into a two-day girl-chasing road trip along the Tyrrhenian coast. The patchy paint on Bruno’s convertible attests to his driving style.
Il sorpasso (1962) sounds like any old odd-couple comedy; its collected talent and social seismography make it anything but. Roberto is played by Jean Louis Trintignant at his most romantically repressed. Vittorio Gassman shines a glimmer of desperation through Bruno’s short-attention-span braggadocio with his grimacing smile. And the director is Dino Risi, subject of an eight-film tribute at MOMA, who prepares familiar Commedia all’Italiana with a bittersweet aftertaste.
Much of the film takes place inside Bruno’s revving car—Risi maneuvers the open road deftly—as he heckles and beeps the horn at everyone he blows past, including Latin-speaking priests and peasant farmers, leftovers of the region’s dusty Papal past. Opening with Bruno careening through empty Rome in August to the antic jazz of Maestro Riz Ortolani, the soundtrack afterward fills with frisky, flimsy summertime hits coming from beach transistors and dashboard 45 players—essentially the same pop-carpeted atmosphere we know today.
Bruno confesses that he slept through Antonioni’s L’Eclisse—but, like Antonioni, Risi is concerned with surveying the shiny new Italia of “Il Boom,” “Cement Fever,” and bikinis—only he played his findings for laughs, which means his 53rd Street tribute took awhile to materialize (it’s here now In Memoriam: Risi died in 2008 at age 92). Arguably, Risi’s purview is the more complex: The rural dance that Bruno mocks seems not far from the discos and beach hops he’s speeding toward, while a visit to Roberto’s country relatives proves that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. The model for a dozen Discover America road trips, from New Hollywood to Alexander Payne, Risi’s film is also the most unassuming sort of masterpiece.
‘Il sorpasso’ screens as part of MOMA’s Dino Risi series on December 10 and 16