Last month, Alexander Payne was a special guest at the Wisconsin Film Festival, but the film he was presenting wasn’t one of his own, like “The Descendants” or “Sideways.” It was one of his favorite films as a fan, Italian director Dino Risi’s “Il Sorpasso” (“”The Easy Life.”)
Watching the film, you can immediately see the impact that it had on Payne. An introvert and an extrovert go on a road trip together full of wine, women and song? Set it in California wine country, and you have Payne’s own “Sideways.” But the truth is there have been a hundred movies just like this over the years. “Il Sorpasso” just happens to be one of the best. The Criterion Collection has released a lovely new edition of the film on DVD/Blu-ray, and among the special features is, just to complete the circle, an introduction by Alexander Payne.
Industrious law student Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is hard at work on his studies when he has a visitor. It’s Bruno (Vittorio Gassman), a free spirit who has just spent the opening credits tooling around Rome in his convertible. (If that sequence doesn’t get you to fall in love with Italian cinema, we might as well stop right now.)
Bruno asks to use the phone. Then he asks to use the bathroom. By the time he comes out of the bathroom with his shirt off, we know he’s made himself at home. Somehow he cajoles a terrified and fascinated Roberto away from his desk and into the car, where the two go off on a wild two-day excursion to the coast.
Driving recklessly, his musical car horn sounding like a schoolyard taunt, Bruno is the embodiment of living the easy life, moving from restaurant to restaurant and woman to woman with a carefree glee. He should be an awful character (Thomas Haden Church made him pathetic in “Sideways”) but he’s ultimately lovable, because he grabs life so fully. “Do you know what the best age is?” Bruno asks Roberto. “The age you are, day by day.”
Plus, Bruno seems to take a genuine liking to Roberto, and one of the many pleasures of watching “Il Sorpasso” is watching that friendship grow over the course of the film. Plus, Risi stuffs the frame with life, the eye constantly wandering to that interesting-looking extra or this glimpse into 1962 Italian life. There are all these little throwaway moments that are either funny or strangely resonant, like the truck the pals pass on the road in which a man has set up a cozy apartment in the back, or the boy who gazes watchfully at the dancing women on the beach.
The party can’t last, of course; “Il Sorpasso” isn’t as dark as Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” in evoking the emptiness of the party, but the ending does suggest that life is fleeting. Best to, as Bruno does, squeeze what happiness out of it that you can, while you can.