The setup couldn’t be simpler. Bruno, tooling around Rome in a stylish Lancia Aurelia convertible, needs to make a phone call but everything seems to be closed. The fit, energetic 40-year-old spies a curious young Roberto looking out an apartment window. He asks Roberto if he’d be so kind as to place a call for him, but the young man impulsively invites Bruno up to the apartment instead. The bookish college student, basically young enough to be Bruno’s son, is impressed by his new acquaintance’s boundless enthusiasm and devil-may-care attitude. They take off together to find someplace for a drink, getting to know each other along the way. Bruno craves human interaction, throwing himself into any given situation. Roberto is far more reserved, preferring to observe rather than interact (“old-fashioned” is how one of the many females they meet on the road uncharitably puts it).
Bruno has more life experience and therefore slowly emerges as the more interesting of the two. When they visit Roberto’s relatives, Bruno charms the pants off them—seemingly able to converse intelligently and compellingly about any topic. He even manages to casual uncover a family secret completely unknown to Roberto. Though he has his act completely together with his studies and disciplined attitude, Roberto comes to deeply admire his new friend. But as he puts the pieces of Bruno’s life together—a failed marriage (his wife is played by Luciana Angiolillo), a teenage daughter (Catherine Spaak) he barely knows (and is even accidently attracted to, in one particularly awkward moment)—he finds depth (and even depression) he couldn’t have imagined existed when the two first hit the road. Roberto is inspired to act upon his feelings for a female neighbor he’s sweet on (but never speaks to), though Bruno’s influence is revealed to be ultimately unhealthy.
There may be no such thing as true perfection, but Criterion’s restoration of Il Sorpasso gets as close to it as possible. The 52 years since its original release seemingly melt away, offering strikingly crisp black-and-white imagery. Detail, excellent in close ups, holds up terrifically in wide shots. The Italian locations, captured so vividly in Alfio Contini’s cinematography, are practically a character unto themselves so it’s massively important they look as great as they do here. The only anomalies throughout are ones that are inherent in the original negative (which was utilized for the transfer, according to the booklet notes), such as a couple of prominent hairs in the gate. The LPCM 1.0 mono track, in Italian, is simple but free of issue. The lively soundtrack tunes and music by Riz Ortolani have plenty of presence despite the mix’s lack of stereo separation.
Criterion has packed Il Sorpasso full of bonus materials sourced from a variety of time periods. In terms of length, the 2006 documentary A Beautiful Vacation runs nearly an hour. It’s a warm look at the career of Dino Risi, filmed near the end of the director’s life (he passed in 2008 at age 91). Excerpts from Speaking with Gassman, a 2005 doc made by Marco Risi (son of Dino), total about 30 minutes, covering the long-term collaboration between Dino and actor Vittorio Gassman.
Five additional shorter featurettes, two of which are newly-produced Criterion exclusives (interviews with film historian Remi Fournier Lanzoni and Sorpasso co-writer Ettore Scola), add additional historical context. Director Alexander Payne offers his own personal insights into the film, which influenced his own work (including Sideways) during his six-minute introduction. The booklet is thick with writings by Risi, essays by Phillip Lopate and Antonio Monda, and more.
Il Sorpasso is an entirely believable tale of male bonding and a sharply conceived contrast of lifestyles. I can say this based on my own personal experience, viewers may even be inspired to re-examine their own friendships by the film’s conclusions. As a dry-eyed cautionary tale, Risi’s character study succeeds marvelously at allowing us to contemplate the choices made by Roberto and Bruno without feeling ill will toward either man. If you don’t feel like you are either Roberto or Bruno, you’re quite likely to feel like you’ve known people exactly like them.