Bruno is brash, buoyant, impulsive. He leaps into everything without thinking, he’s cheerful, likable, obnoxious. When we first meet him he’s zooming around a silent shuttered Rome in August; it’s a ghost town, everyone is gone already on vacation. He drives a sporty lancia aurelia, he drives fast and carelessly, even his horn is cheerful and obnoxious. He sees Roberto staring out his window and he calls up to ask a favor–will he make a phone call for him? Roberto invites him up to make the call himself. With the anxious self-doubt of a man who spends a lot of time alone, he second guesses his decision to help, but assures himself that it will be okay. Next to Bruno, Roberto seems small, pale, quiet and serious, but somehow they hit it off, and Bruno persuades Roberto to go for a drink with him so that he can repay his kindness. What follows is the road trip at the center of Il Sorpasso, Dino Riso’s beautiful Commedie all’italiana starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Vittorio Gassman.
The heart of the film is the unlikely friendship between Bruno and Roberto. On the surface it seems like a morality tale: light and dark, angel and devil, the moral man tempted by the immoral man. But it’s far more complicated than that, and this is what makes it more honest and beautiful. Bruno, affable and social, has an easy way with people. He’s friendly and flirtatious, and he impresses Roberto with his schemes to seduce many of the women they meet. But he always fails to do so. He’s alone at the beginning of the film, and alone again at the end. And he’s surprised by Roberto’s flashes of humor and insight, by the strength of his personality, though it be quietly expressed. The film itself is full of darkness and light. Cheerful, entertaining, but ultimately thoughtful and very sad.
As the story of their friendship unfolds, through the streets and cafes and nightclubs of 1960s Italy, the camera lingers on other people all around them. Not fleetingly but thoughtfully, a real wondering pause that treats the characters not as extras but as people with fascinating stories of their own, which we could discover if only we chose to follow them instead of Bruno and Roberto. Many times throughout the film Roberto nearly leaves Bruno, to make his own way back to Rome. But he always stays in the end, and they develop almost a brotherly relationship. They talk about keeping in touch when they return to Rome, and you wonder if it would actually happen. Bruno plays and talks and sings, Roberto watches and thinks, and they speed along the Via Aurelia, passing everyone in their way.