Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Il Sorpasso (June 19th and 21st at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[IL SOPRASSO screens Thursday June 19th at 7:45 pm and Saturday June 21st at 5:00 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

Wow, twice in two weeks, two black-and-white movies from the early 1960s that most of you have never heard of (one that I confess I had never heard of), with not a bit of CGI. Yet they gave me more entertainment value than whatever sequel or superhero junk made millions at the multiplexes. And both were scheduled at the illustrious Cleveland Cinematheque, run by John Ewing. Gee, can there be a subtle lesson here?

Yes: Hollywood must work harder on even more expensive and action-filled superhero movies. That's the only lesson most filmmakers and moviegoers will take home.

Sorry, Mr. Ewing. Perhaps in our next lives we'll be born somewhere that appreciates us. Italy, perhaps?

The first of my personal hit summer non-blockbusters was Shirley Clarke's single-set mockumentary wonder THE CONNECTION, from 1961. The second was Dino Risi's dynamic Italian road comedy-drama IL SORPASSO, which I am given to understand has been somewhat out of circulation in the USA since its 1962 debut. I find that a bit strange, since it's got all the elements that made European films of the period hot stuff. A snazzy visual style, great pop songs of the day, grownup themes that would have alerted Hollywood censors and the Catholic Legion of Decency, and, of course, beautiful Mediterranean females in revealing clothing. It's not for nothing that ace showman Roger Corman imported a number of Fellini and Bergman titles and got them played in both art-houses and grindhouses for the gawkers.

IL SORPASSO, whose English-release title was THE EASY LIFE, takes place over a long, sunny, indolent holiday weekend around Rome. Law student Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is trying to use the peace and quiet of the closed-down society to cram for his exams. But into his life roars Bruno (Vittorio Gassman), a big, boisterous, womanizing Roman at the wheel of a hot sportscar with a gag picture of Brigitte Bardot on the dashboard. Bruno at first asks to use Roberto's apartment phone, then offers to drive the younger man out to a nice restaurant for some fun before the kid goes back to homework.

The restaurant is closed, of course, and Bruno uses every excuse to take Roberto out ever farther and farther, to the outskirts of town to visit relatives, and finally to a Riviera beach-front resort town and Bruno's own ex-wife and daughter, blowing off the weekend in a live-for-the-moment frolic and flirtations. Along the way, Roberto can't help but notice that Bruno is actually a bit of a sad case, telling inconsistent stories about his business deals (most of which apparently fall through) and constantly parasiting off other people. His more hardworking and responsible and still-attractive ex-wife explains that Bruno is a big child, all surface and no substance.

Yet, for all that, the jerk embodies a carefree existence completely seductive to button-down Roberto, a studious sort who anticipates a future as a business drone dutifully trying to please his family (it may be worth mentioning that this movie takes place in a milieu when Italy had an economic boom, and there were actually jobs. Feels like science-fiction to me now).

Late in the film Roberto says Bruno has shown him the best time of his life. Unfortunately, [SPOILER ALERT] a harsh comeuppance for Roberto is literally around the next highway bend, a moralistic and heavily-foreshadowed ending that, inevitable as it may seem, closes the picture on a tsk-tsk note that could only be approved by a set of grim, black-clad priests speaking Latin, whom we see stranded by the road early on. It makes one appreciate how Fellini's immortal epic of hedonism, LA DOLCE VITA, made a similar point more subtly, its doomed, decadent characters gathered at the beach at sunrise to stare at a grotesque fish carcass.  

Still, IL SORPASSO beats most anything else out there right now you could name. And, oh, the beautiful girls they had around in those days! You know, the year after this movie was made, I was born. And I can't prove it, but I suspect the United Nations passed a measure curtailing any further production of women who looked this good. Just so my misery would be compounded as I grew up. Like I say, I can't prove it. But UN Resolution 424: Make Charles Really Suffer would explain a lot about the world. (3 3/4 out of 4 stars)

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