1 May 2014
Criterion’s release of Il Sorpasso is one of the home video releases of the year. Described as the ‘utlimate Italian comedy road movie’ Il Sorpasso has undergone a striking restoration. In previous weeks I have also seen Mario Moncelli’s The Organiser and Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, also released by Criterion. The release of these three Italian films is substantial in terms of revising a filmic historical past arguing for greater inclusivity. Film academia has in the past framed 1960s Italian cinema through the prism of an existential art cinema, leading to the canonisation of international auteurs including Bertolucci, Pasolini, Antonioni and Fellini. One could argue the popularisation of the auteur theory around about this time also crystallised a hegemonic ‘art cinema’. Such a valedictory attitude fabricated a snobbish historiography of Italian cinema. The exclusion of genre films especially Italian comedies from the canon of 1960s Italian cinema, many which were commercially successful in Italy, reiterates a familiar rhetoric of low and high culture that disputably led to their ostracism. All three films fuse conversant genre idioms with a darkly comedic tone: The Organiser (neo realism), Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion (political thriller), and Il Sorpasso (the road movie). In doing so, the fusion of forms led to certain perceptive works of innovation like Il Sorpasso. Director Alexander Payne says director Dino Risi films the landscape through which Roberto (Gassman) and Bruno (Trintignant) travel in their car not simply to offer us picturesque scenery but more importantly to show us the everyday humanity of Italy and its people. This interest in the landscape seems to be a unifying thematic and aesthetic principle common to many of the Italian filmmakers of this era not just the international auteurs. Equally, Il Sorpasso is a template film. Several American road movies counting Easy Rider, Thelma & Louise, Sideways and recently Nebraska replicate Risi’s tragicomic narrative as it seems perfectly suited to a genre in which the iconography of the open road can lead to endless unexpected situations. In truth the real cinematic charm of Il Sorpasso is the affable Gassman whose laddish, uninhibited spirit is infectious as it is destructive.