Monday, November 24, 2014

#707: Il Sorpasso

(Dino Risi, 1962)

Il Sorpasso is the kind of movie Americans almost never see. The majority of foreign films that make it to our shores are serious, ambitious films that would be labeled prestige or art pictures even in their own country. Comedies are rarely imported, even from English speaking countries (with the exception being the occasional quirky inspirational English country comedy), while some films that hardly get a release in their own country are trumpeted upon their arrival in the US.

So here is an odd installment in the Criterion Collection: a loony commercial comedy in the middle of Italy's late 50s, early 60s golden age. One of the protagonists even dismisses Antonioni as boring - maybe the first instance of a film talking trash about other films in the collection? It's no surprise that Il Sorpasso is largely unknown in the US, despite being hugely popular in its native country.

(Spoilers below.)

But what's most interesting about Il Sorpasso is how often it defies its low-brow nature. The movie's basic premise couldn't be more Hollywood: two guys, one uptight and inexperienced and one borderline insane and fun-loving, spend a day racing through the Italian countryside, encountering colorful predicaments along the way. And yet its ending, in which the car careens off the road, sending the young man to his death on the cliffs below, wouldn't get past the first submitted draft of the script in any Hollywood studio.

It's this moment which is inevitably the crux of the film, and it sends a shadow over everything that came before it. It's all over so quickly that it's difficult to process as it is happening what it means for the picture as a whole, but it leaves you with such a sour taste in your mouth that it's hard to retain the freewheeling joy of the rest of the movie without feeling implicated in an innocent man's senseless death. In other hands, the movie might have ended with the same tragedy, only played with a sly wink to the audience, a dark joke between the director and his viewers. An equally likely choice would have been to send Bruno to his death, leaving the younger man to ponder the implications of the whirlwind day in which he was caught. Yet Risi's decision to kill off the law student and leave Bruno empty-handed turns the tables on his Italian viewers. One man's awakening to the carefree life becomes an indictment of Italian machismo in an instant.

How you responded to the ending will likely depend on how you viewed Bruno in the rest of the movie. Characters like this have become ingrained in Hollywood films over the last fifty years, so his carefree brutishness is less jarring than it might have seemed in the 1960s, perhaps making the ending feel even more surprising, out of place, and/or unwarranted. I've seen comments online from people raving about the movie but stating that they will pretend the last few minutes of the movie didn't happen, while others (rightly) argue that the ending is the whole point of the movie. For me, Il Sorpasso is a reminder that films needn't subscribe to one genre, one tone, or even one viewpoint. Fun can be fun, even when it leads to tragedy. This is so often forgotten in modern Hollywood that it bears repeating: once art is pigeonholed, it loses much of its power.

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