Thursday, August 13, 2009

You've Never Had It So Easy

I took a gander up to Parc de la Villette to watch, for the first time in years, a film at the annual open-air cinema. Past years have been marred by a timid, unadventurous range of films but this year the middle-brow (Little Miss Sunshine) and the inexplicably remembered (Amistad) are leavened by some genuinely interesting films. Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop and Herzog's Fitzcarraldo are both on this week. Another interesting film was showing Tuesday night, Dino Risi's Il Sorpasso, known in English as The Easy Life, or rather not known in English, as the film, like Risi (who died a year ago, aged 92) is shamefully neglected in the English-speaking world.

Not so in France, where he is revered as an equal of Billy Wilder. The French title Le fanfaron (meaning, roughly, the braggart or the loudmouth) has given its name to a bar not too far from where I live and the film is rightly considered a comedy classic. The tale of a chance encounter between a shy young law student (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and an ebullient older charmer (Vittorio Gassman), the film reminded me partly of Ferris Bueller's Day Off (I wouldn't be surprised if John Hughes was a fan) and partly Alberto Moravia's contemporary grim meditations on postwar Italy (Trintignant's Roberto has more than a hint of his role at the obedient young fascist in Bertollucci's adaptation of The Conformist).

While the trajectory of the film is predictable enough, it never strains credibility and Gassman's 40-something chancer masks a poignant loneliness and frustration at being just a bit too old for the recent opening-up of Italian society and relaxing of traditional mores. The film is unusual in that it has an almost equal spread of one-liners and visual humour. Risi is best known for his film Scent of a Woman, which was remade as the Oscar-winning Al Pacino shoutathon, but strangely his work is unknown to all but the most seasoned anglophone cinéphiles. Co-writer Ettore Scola went on to become an acclaimed director of social comedies in his own right. And Alfio Contini's evenly-lit monochrome photography recalls Aldo Scavardi's sunkissed lighting on Antonioni's L'avventura. And Risi even gets a dig in at the maestro of alienation too...

Il sorpasso (1962)
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