screened December 28 2008 on VHS in Weehawken NJ
Dino Risi, who passed away this June to little fanfare, helmed nearly 80 features over a career spanning seven decades, the most celebrated of them being this road comedy, one of the early influencers of the genre. A mild-mannered student (Jean-Louis Trintignant, more buttoned-up than usual) has his eyes opened to the excitements and vices of booming 60s Italy when he’s taken for a ride by a braggadocio businessman (Vittorio Gassman, whose last name fits his character in terms of his talking and driving). The garrulous script is co-written by Ettore Scola (We All Loved Each Other So Much, A Special Day), and it shows in the story’s reliance on broad social types who require a full story arc to acquire dimension and pathos. Trintignant never overcomes the flat naivete of his character, basically a prop for Gassman’s blowhard hedonism, which borders on belligerence (not surprisingly, Risi also wrote and directed the original version of Scent of a Woman). But when Gassman points out a family secret to his protege’s unbelieving eyes, he gains credibility as a social critic who’s not so much an asshole as too smart for his own good, earning the film a rib-jabbing cynicism worthy of Billy Wilder. The sudden, tragic ending feels as arbitrary as the one in Easy Rider [TSPDT #331], a film it allegedly inspired, while other sardonic moments are undercut by the film’s essential ambivalence towards its own social critique: a fete full of gum-chewing teenyboppers eager to lose their virginity brims with leering undertones of adult envy; a sun-baked beach party exceeds tourist ad levels of brain-fried fun. The Easy Life‘s ambivalent worldview may lack the singular formal curiosity of Antonioni (whose L’Eclisse is the target of the film’s biggest punch lines) or the carnivalesque lyricism of Fellini, but the way it mixes equal parts hipper-than-thou wisecracks, mainstream morality and tasty dollops of la dolce vita may account for its mass appeal.
Want to go deeper?
Opening Sequence on YouTube:
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Il Sorpaso / The Easy Life on the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Joaquin Oristrell, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Orlando Lubbert, Miscellaneous (2001)
Paolo D’Agostini, Sight & Sound (1992)
Rainer Knepperges, Steadycam (2007)
CIAK, 100 Capola Vori del Cinema (2000)
Italian Critics Best Italian Films 1942-1978 (2008)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Vittorio Gassman as a middle-aged playboy who takes law student Jean-Louis Trintignant under his wing, the better to teach him the cynical lessons of modern Italian living. Dino Risi’s corrosive social comedy managed to combine the aggressive energy of the French New Wave and the dissipated drift of Antoniennui in a way that seemed fresh and daring in the Italian commercial cinema of 1962. It still holds up today, though Risi’s attachment to surfaces (the superficial as corollary of the social) looks less like criticism than complicity. Still, it’s an unsentimental vision he offers, edging toward nihilism, with little of the thematic softening and emotional backing off that frequently mar the comparable efforts of Wilder. The cynicism is thoroughgoing and more than a little heartless, but the styling, with its astute balancing of commerce and modernist understanding, is resolutely assured.
– Pat Graham, The Chicago Reader
DINO RISI, the Italian writer-director known here only for “Poor But Beautiful” (“Poveri Ma Belli”), shown in New York five years ago, has improved immensely to judge by “The Easy Life” (“Il Sorpasso”), which arrived at the Festival Theater yesterday. For his examination of an aimless wastrel and his destructive effect on an idealistic youngster and others, he merely touches on his flight from responsibility in a seemingly simple and obvious, yet sensitive commentary on what certainly are universal faults.
Call this a comedy-drama in which the comedy is only a surface symptom. Basically, Mr. Risi and his scenarists are telling the story of Bruno, a youthful but middle-aged happy-go-lucky type, who adores his fast white roadster as much as he does the girls and the self-indulgent life it symbolizes. This is also the story of Roberto, an ill-fated serious, Caspar Milquetoast-type of Roman law student who is drawn, quite casually, into Bruno’s swift orbit for two days during which he loses not only his perspectives and ideals but also his life.
The views and the girls are extremely photogenic and the headlong dash toward fun and games would appear to be obvious and somewhat pointless if they did not add up to a dramatic whole.
But Mr. Risi’s fast-paced direction and, more important, the truths he underlines, give his uncluttered film meaning and poignancy as well as mere speed. He is fortunate in his principals, too. Vittorio Gassman makes a superbly brash, coarse, hail-fellow-well-met Bruno who, in one of his rare moments of honest sadness, warns Roberto away from his “easy life” because “I’ve never had a real friend.” As the diffident, introspective Roberto, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who has been seen here in a variety of French films, is excellent as his opposite number, an impressionable youngster whose shame and fears finally turn to admiration of his strange friend’s “easy life.”
– The New York Times, December 23, 1963
After learning about commedia all’Italiano, I found more to appreciate in The Easy Life. I had always found the film a high-spirited adventure made on a modest budget and influenced by the breezy style of the French New Wave, but now I see it as the embodiment of comedy, Italian style. The deceptively simple story follows the adventures of Roberto, a young college student who is persuaded to hit the road with Bruno, an older playboy. Bruno drives a gleaming white sports way too fast, and he honks the cutesy-sounding horn way too much; the car makes a nice symbol of Bruno’s larger-than-life but invasive presence. My favorite part of Bruno’s car is the tiny record player built into the dashboard. In one scene, Roberto pops in a favorite record as the old man who is their temporary passenger looks on in wonder. (This is the pre-audiocassette era but who knew there were cars equipped with record players!).
The pair whiz past newly built apartment buildings that all look alike, stop by a popular but overly crowded new tourist spot along the beach, talk about modern alienation as revealed in the new Antonioni movie, and listen to new music in Bruno’s high-priced sports car — all the result of the economic prosperity and consumerism foisted on the public by marketing and advertising.
The audience identifies with Roberto, and sometimes the camera is positioned in the car’s back seat, creating the illusion that we are riding along with the pair and are part of the party. Like Roberto, we are repelled by Bruno (the embodiment of the new Italy), who is rude, crass, and disrespectful of religion, monogamy, and other traditional values. But, also like Roberto, we are attracted to this handsome playboy, because he is sexy, fun, and just too hip for the room. Yet, we are right to be wary of him, and at the end of the film, we discover the consequences of his lifestyle and its influence on a new generation. The film’s title, The Easy Way, has a double meaning; it not only refers to Bruno’s preferred lifestyle but it was also contemporary slang for Italy’s economic boom.
– suzidoll, TCM Movie Morlocks blog
There are curves that you cannot fail to remember. We’re are not talking about breasts here, we’re talking about the Calafuria reef near Castiglioncello. This is where Bruno Cortona (interpreted by Jean-Louis Trintignant) died in a car accident, in the Italian cult movie Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life) by Dino Risi. The shore between Livorno and Rosignano has always been famous as a tourist spot, but after hosting the set of Il Sorpasso, Vittorio Gassman’s most popular movie, it turned into a symbolic place, forever branding the Italian cinematographic imaginary.
The movie by Dino Risi – who recently passed away at the age of 91 – was shot in the summer of 1961, casting places like the Pineta Marradi, the Pratovecchio and the Romito on the movie screens, giving a new dimension to the cinematographic holidays. Il Sorpasso pictured the road as a symbolic space, taking place at the end of the Italian boom ruined by the individualism and coarseness of industrial society, turning this movie into a national cultural phenomenon and allegedly inspired the American road movie Easy Rider.
The movie’s most memorable symbol is the Via Aurelia, the Roman road which also gives the name to Vittorio Gassman’s spyder, the Aurelia B24. The trip starts from the capital’s high class quarters, winds down the “borgate romane” (the working-class suburbs of Rome) and runs along the Fregene and Capalbio shores, motoring through places that capture the generational myth of the summer holidays and the awkward euphoria of people who have just discovered the freedom of the open road.
– Martina Magno, Emanuela Marchetti, Check In Architecture. See accompanying video with footage of locations from the film as they exist today:
About Dino Risi
There is a brief but telling scene in Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life, 1962) that encapsulates his vision as a film-maker. In it, Vittorio Gassman’s playboy parks his racer illegally, and then casually tucks under the windscreen wiper the parking ticket from a neighbouring car so as to avoid getting a fine himself.
The gesture’s mix of elegance, bravado and cunning are for Risi both the best and worst of his fellow Italians’ characteristics, and emblematic too of the country’s postwar transformation from the values of a traditional society to those of consumerism.
This theme supplied the material for the most successful of his 50-odd films, and customarily led Risi to be hailed as one of the chief creators, both as director and screenwriter, of the commedia all’italiana, at once funny and tragic. It might be more insightful, however, to say that the preoccupations of his films simply chimed with his own character — sardonic, melancholic, perpetually unfaithful and disappointed in love. He had trained as a psychiatrist, and his work is notable for its psychological insight.
The title “maestro of Italian film comedy” was one that Dino Risi, who has died aged 91, shared with Mario Monicelli, 18 months older, but still alive. Along with the late Pietro Germi, who made Divorce, Italian Style (1961), they created the genre which became known as “comedy Italian style”, a considerable improvement on the average Italian comic films of the time. Even if Risi’s 1974 film Profumo di Donna (Scent of a Woman), with Vittorio Gassman as man trying to come to terms with his blindness, was perhaps his greatest international success (winning him an Oscar nomination for its screenplay and a Hollywood remake with Al Pacino) it was his 1962 comedy, also starring Gassman, Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life), which was to become a cult movie. It is among the films that most reflected the mood of its times, in this case the social malaise behind the Italian economic “miracle” of the 1960s.
Like Germi and Monicelli, but also Federico Fellini, of whom he was a friend and admirer, Risi never took part in the militant political battles of those years, and was thus often snubbed by leftist intellectuals, but among his 50 or so features, many were biting satires of Italian foibles in which Gassman, who made 16 films under his direction, and other great stars of those years such as Ugo Tognazzi, Marcello Mastroianni, Nino Manfredi, Sophia Loren and Monica Vitti had scintillating and significant roles.
Risi was the son of a distinguished Milan doctor who was the physician of the La Scala opera house: among his patients was a young journalist named Benito Mussolini. But the Risi family was anti-fascist, and after the armistice of 1943 it refused to become involved with Mussolini’s puppet republic of Salò. The family took refuge in Switzerland, where Dino and his brother Nelo, a poet also destined to become a film director, forgot their medical studies and became interested in films.
In Geneva, Risi took a film course with exiled French director Jacques Feyder. Back in Milan after the war, to please his father he got his medical degree, but started making short films. One of these, Darkness in the Cinema, about a man suffering from depression who after an afternoon in the cinema recovers his joy for life, was seen by the producer Carlo Ponti, who bought it and hired Risi as a scriptwriter.
After his first two forgotten features, in 1955 he directed Loren in two films, in both of which she co-starred with Vittorio de Sica. One was The Sign of Venus, the other Scandal in Sorrento, the third of the popular Bread and Love films (Pane, Amore e …), which the director of the first two films, Luigi Comencini, and their star Gina Lollobrigida had declined to make. These were followed by a series of comedy successes with young stars which were scathingly accused of turning neorealism into “rosy realism”, but expanded the possibilities for Risi as a director.
In 1961 he made A Porte Chiuse (Behind Closed Doors) with Anita Ekberg, with whom he had an affair. That same year he made Una Vita Difficile (A Difficult Life), his first cynical look at the “social malaise” of the times, scripted by Rodolfo Sonego, in which Alberto Sordi plays an idealistic communist party follower who finally gives in to the temptations of the new capitalist era only when in desperate economic plight. Humiliated, he makes a pathetic if dignified attempt to save his honour. Recently restored, this film has at last won due recognition.
But it was the clamorous success of Il Sorpasso the next year that finally took Risi out of the “rosy realism” ghetto. Gassman played the phoney playboy driving a sports car around a deserted Rome on a summer’s day who induces a studious young man (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) to keep him company, dragging him into an “Easy Rider” trip towards adventures on the road and in seaside resorts, before a reckless “sorpasso” (overtaking) sends the car over the cliffs. Gassman is thrown out of the car and survives, but Trintignant is killed. The producer did not want the tragic end, saying: “This is a comedy!” Risi made a bet with him: “If it rains tomorrow, I’ll agree to find a happier ending.” It did not rain, and the director’s ending was shot as written, without damaging its box-office triumph.
Among his subsequent hits, of varying quality, the one still most appreciated remains I Mostri (The Monsters, 1963), 20 sketches in which Gassman and Tognazzi were given the chance to indulge in grotesque caricatures that ranged from fanatical soccer fans to corrupt politicians, a rogues’ gallery that can still make Italians laugh and wince. But Risi would often tackle serious subjects such as in Caro Papà (Dear Dad, 1979), in which Gassman played a businessman former partisan, whose son studies semiotics but is a member of a terrorist group. He discovers too late that his son had been trying to convince his comrades not to execute him.
In 2002 Risi was given the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice film festival. Two years earlier he had already made his last film, a cynical look at the Miss Italy beauty contest which was shown only on television.
He was separated from his Swiss-born wife Claudia, mother of his two sons, Marco and Claudio, both film directors. He is survived by them and by the choreographer Leonice Snell, with whom he has lived for the past 30 years.
– Obiturary by John Francis Lane, The Guardian, June 9 2008
In the early 1950s, Italian cinema was turning away from the politically charged movement known as neorealism, with its harsh, documentary-like depiction of daily life. Adding an element of sentimentality and comedy, Mr. Risi joined a group of filmmakers who at first were condemned with the label “rose-colored neorealism,” but quickly earned the affection of an Italian public eager to put war trauma in the past.
– Obituary by Dave Kehr, The New York Times, June 9, 2008
Risi is considered one of the prime creators of “rose-tinted” neo-realism (“neo-realismo rosa”), having big box-office hits with Pane, amore e . . . (Scandal in Sorrento, 1955), starring Sophia Loren at her most voluptuous, and Poveri ma belli (Poor But Beautiful, 1956), after which he established himself as a master of caustic Neapolitan comedies that used buffoonery to satirise the often bleak realities of contemporary Italian life. “The Neapolitans say that there is no burial without a burst of laughter,” he said. “Life is a mixture of the serious and the comical, the good and the bad, continuously.”
Notable among these early movies was the first film he directed starring Gassman, Il Mattatore (Love and Larceny, 1959), and a very funny comedy poking fun at Italy’s judiciary, A Porte Chiuse (Behind Closed Doors, 1960), featuring a delightful performance by Anita Ekberg as an amoral beauty on trial for the murder of her wealthy lover. Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life, 1962) starred Gassman as a hedonist travelling around Italy in a sports car with a shy student (Jean-Louis Tritagnant) and was described by the critic Paolo D’Agostini as “a skilful description of Italy’s and Rosi’s own transition from youthful euphoria to utilitarian cynicism.”
Rosi told the French historian Jean A. Gili, “I joined the ranks, not of militant realism, but of those films which later revealed themselves to be perhaps even more politically committed than the ones that claimed to be, in their stressing of the evils of Italian society”.
Asked to define his directorial style, Risi replied that it was hybrid. “Critics like classifications, they always want to put you in a compartment. I bring subjects to the screen that I’m interested in and which can be very dramatic, though I always add a pinch of irony in even the most serious stories”. Risi was given a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 2002, the year he retired after spending his final years mainly writing for television. In 2004 he published an autobiography, I miei mostri (“My monsters”).
– Tom Vallance, The Independent