During an early scene in Dino Risi’s 1962 film Il Sorpasso, Bruno Cortona (Vittorio Gassman) tells Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to put on a Domenico Modugno record. “This song drives me crazy,” Bruno says. “It seems so simple, but it’s got everything: loneliness, inability to communicate, and that stuff that’s all the rage now — alienation, like in Antonioni’s films. Did you see L’Eclisse? I fell asleep. Had a nice nap. Great director, Antonioni.” At least on the surface, Risi’s road trip comedy has little in common with Michelangelo Antonioni’s somber meditations on modern life, such as L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962). As the movie goes on, though, Bruno’s description of the Modugno song becomes more and more applicable to Il Sorpasso itself.
The film begins in Rome during Ferragosto, an Italian national holiday coinciding with the Roman Catholic feast of the Assumption, which takes place on August 15th. Bruno is driving through the city in search of a telephone, but there’s virtually no sign of human life, much less an open business that will allow him to make a call. Finally, when he pulls over to get a drink of water from a faucet, he spots law student Roberto standing at his window. “Hey, you,” Bruno yells up to him. Roberto steps back in alarm. “You hiding?” Bruno asks, prompting Roberto to step toward the window again, albeit hesitantly. Bruno explains that he wants to let his friends know that he’s on his way to meet them, and though Roberto initially agrees to call them, he then suggests that it might be easier for Bruno to come up to the apartment and do it himself. Characteristically, he has doubts even before Bruno reaches the door. “Maybe I should have called. I don’t even know who he is. I don’t know him,” he thinks. “Maybe I could find an excuse — no…”
It’s too late anyway, because Bruno is ringing the bell, and although he’s only there to use the phone, he quickly makes himself at home. In the space of three minutes, he calls his friends, inquires into various aspects of Roberto’s life, insults Roberto’s mother (“Who’s this fatty?” he asks, picking up her photograph), rubs grease on the sofa and breaks the bathroom shelf. His friends have left without him (“We said 11:00, and at 12:00 they’re already gone”), so he declares that he’ll “be spending the holiday with Mama” and leaves Roberto to his law books — for half a second. The doorbell rings. “Listen, you gonna stay inside all day studying?” Bruno asks as he bursts in again. “Yes, I have exams in September and I’m behind,” says Roberto, but Bruno won’t accept this response. He insists on buying him a drink (“if we can find a bar open”) and practically pushes him into the hallway — and so the adventure begins.
From the start, Bruno and Roberto are set up as opposites. The former is confident, brash, a huge personality. He makes an impression on everyone he meets, and while he can be quite charming at times, he’s more likely to irritate and offend, especially when he’s behind the wheel of his convertible. Whether he’s stopping for a hitchhiker and then pulling away at the last second, shouting disparaging remarks at other travelers or cutting off cars at breakneck speeds, he seems to thrive on antagonizing people. Above all, he loves being the center of attention, no matter what sort of attention that may be.
In contrast, Roberto is quite shy, even timid. It’s no accident that he, not Bruno, is the character whose inner voice is heard at various points throughout the movie (the garrulous Bruno has little need for an inner voice), and because he’s so reticent and polite, his thoughts frequently contradict his speech, to comedic effect. For instance, when Bruno wants to go to a restaurant for lunch, Roberto thinks, “What excuse can I make up? Have lunch with him? I don’t even know him. No reason I should.” As if he can read his mind, Bruno says, “If you don’t feel like it, just say so.” “Why wouldn’t I feel like it?” Roberto asks. Later on, he won’t even call for help when he gets trapped in a bathroom stall or speak up when a waiter gives the drink he ordered to someone else.
Not surprisingly, his shyness also impedes his love life. He confesses to Bruno that he has a crush on girl named Valeria, but although she lives across the street from him, he’s only ever spoken to her once, at his university. (However, he has managed to take a picture of her, and he carries it around in his wallet.) Bruno, an insatiable flirt who fancies himself a great seducer, can’t see the problem:
Bruno: I don’t get it. You could be seeing her every day.
Roberto: How can I commit to a girl right now? I have to finish my studies, find a job, and then —
Bruno: So? Meanwhile you go out, you sleep together. It could all be over in a month. Why do you have to commit? This isn’t the Middle Ages!
These few lines of dialogue exemplify the two characters’ disparate approaches to both romance and life in general. Roberto has his future all mapped out, apparently without being sure that it’s what he really wants. “What if I am doing everything wrong?” he wonders in one of his interior monologues. “That day at the university, even Valeria asked me why I chose law.” He quickly reassures himself, “No, I’m not doing anything wrong,” but his doubts continue to plague him, especially after a visit with his smug lawyer cousin, Alfredo. “I was telling Luisita the other day that you were right to study law,” Alfredo says, referring to his deferential wife. “You’ll graduate and then do just like me: You’ll take your exams, open your own practice and be all set. Soon you’ll be driving a Fiat 1500 just like me. Maybe you’ll even find a good woman like Luisita.” “No,” Roberto replies with a touch of irony, “that would be asking too much.”
Bruno, on the other hand, is nothing if not impulsive, as seen when the brief quest for a drink turns into a seemingly endless road trip. Even in his work, everything is spontaneous and unpremeditated:
Roberto: You really deal in refrigerators?
Bruno: Absolutely. Business is good for now. If the market gets saturated, I’ll do something else. I’ve done it all. If antiques are booming tomorrow, I’ll scour the countryside and dig up a nice eighteenth-century chest. If paintings are booming, I’ll find a Guttuso.
Roberto: In a nuclear attack you rent out bunkers.
Bruno: You got it.
His impulsiveness is a double-edged sword. Although it often gets him into trouble, it also makes his life an adventure, quite unlike Roberto’s staid existence. Roberto isn’t opposed to having fun — early on in the film, he actually encourages Bruno to follow two German girls who seem to be interested in them, though he does so in an indirect way — but he’s too cautious to get involved in much excitement on his own. “I’m always looking before I leap, so I never leap. I’m a loser,” he tells Bruno. “Nah, you’re a great guy,” replies Bruno. “I’m the moron. Anyway, we’ll talk more tomorrow.” This is one of Bruno’s rare moments of vulnerability, and, as usual, he cuts himself off when things get too serious. In another scene, he urges Roberto to talk to Valeria when she returns from her vacation. “Don’t be a jerk, or you’ll find yourself at my age alone as a stray dog,” he says with uncharacteristic gravity, then adds, “Excuse me a minute. Gotta take a leak.”
Much to Roberto’s surprise, it turns out that Bruno has a wife, Gianna (Luciana Angiolillo), and a teenage daughter, Lilli (Catherine Spaak), although he hasn’t been in touch with them for six years, and he and Gianna have been separated much longer than that. She once sent him 600,000 lire so that he could obtain an annulment, but he never went through with it. “I didn’t want to sever the bond for good,” he explains to Roberto. (Naturally, he didn’t bother to send the money back to her.) It’s a surprising touch of sentimentality in a man who has little use for the past unless he can make money off of it, who criticizes Roberto’s decision to study law because it’s “hundreds of years old” and declares that he would take up “space law.” (“‘Two spaceships collide. Who pays?’ Or ‘Can the moon be parceled up into private lots?’ You get me?”) In spite of this, he doesn’t involve himself in his wife and daughter’s lives in any meaningful way. He and Roberto end up spending the night at Gianna’s house, and he tells her that he can’t sleep because he’s worried about Lilli, who’s engaged to a much older man. “A little insomnia once every three years won’t hurt you,” Gianna replies tartly.
Gianna herself is not the least bit nostalgic about their marriage. “I’d die before I’d get back together with Bruno,” she tells Roberto. “I feel for him what a mother feels for a child who’s always down on his luck.” Moreover, she’s content with her life. “I’m fine. I don’t need anybody,” she says when Bruno asks whether she’s still single. She works at an advertising agency in Pisa and is, to all appearances, entirely self-sufficient, mature and responsible — “a good solid woman,” as Bruno describes her. In many ways, she’s as different from him as Roberto is, if not more so.
Lilli, like her mother, comes across as levelheaded and sensible, yet she admits to Bruno that she lacks self-assurance and wants security, which is why she intends to marry Bibì (Claudio Gora), a wealthy, respectable, middle-aged businessman. Their subsequent conversation reveals a great deal about Bruno:
Lilli: I think about you a lot when I’m alone, Dad.
Bruno: You’ll see. Those feelings will pass. Sometimes when I feel alone — well, anyway… Besides, that Bibì may not be that exciting, but he’s solid and reliable. You’ll see. With him… Listen, why not come stay with me a while? Come to Rome. I’ll show you a good time. I’ll take you out dancing. Who am I kidding? I don’t know how to be a father. Another guy would know how to talk to you, explain things.
Lilli: Dad, hush. At least you stay the same.
This isn’t the first time that Bruno acknowledges his loneliness, but never before has he displayed such a lack of self-confidence — and this in the face of his own daughter. When he plays ping-pong against Bibì shortly thereafter, it’s like he’s trying to impress Lilli and reassure himself; he may be a failure as a father, but at least he can assert his dominance in other areas. However, this machismo is also a fundamental part of his personality. His outgoing nature doesn’t come across as an act, a mere means of hiding the fact that he sometimes feels alone and inadequate, but no doubt it helps dispel those feelings. Even though he’s aware of his loneliness, he’s not the type to sit and brood about it, or to overthink everything the way the introspective Roberto does.
Roberto doesn’t always agree with Bruno or approve of his actions, but he can’t help admiring something about his risk-taking, adventurous approach to life. At one point, he tries to pick up a girl by imitating Bruno, even repeating one of his anecdotes. This proves unsuccessful, and he quickly reverts to his own personality, yet it’s clear that his experience with Bruno is having a profound effect on him.
“You know, I know quite a few people in Rieti and Rome,” Roberto says, “but now I see it’s easier to become friends with a complete stranger.” Indeed, despite their differences, the two men form a genuine connection. Neither one of them changes dramatically as a result, nor do they always understand each other, but they do become a little less lonely, a little less alienated, a little more capable of communicating. “I’ve never had a real friend either,” Bruno confesses later in the same scene, after walking off to “take a leak” along the side of the road. A moment later, he reappears in a funny mask. “What are you doing here?” he demands of Roberto, then they both start to laugh. “Did I scare you?” Like Bruno himself, Il Sorpasso doesn’t brood on its heavy themes, but it has much more to it than might be apparent at first glance.