Roots & routes

Il sorpasso


Imagine this: you have some tedious work to do on a midsummer’s public holiday: a university exam to prepare for, completion of work left over from a week at the office, a tap to fix, and, everyone in your neighbourhood has left for the beach or the country- side. You are struggling to concentrate on the task at hand and trying not to think of the long lonely day ahead of you. Then you hear the roar of a sports car draw closer and closer. It stops right outside your apartment. A tall dark handsome guy gets out of a Lancia Aurelia B24 Spider, a powerful sports car, both a little worse for wear. He sees you staring at him from the window and asks if he can use your telephone. He is so charming you let him in. At the point of leaving, he asks: “What are you doing here closed up in your apartment? It’s a public holiday, and my plans for the day have gone hay why. How about going out for an aperitif in town?” You are 22 and you are in a Roman suburb. It is going to be the hottest day in 1962 and Italy has just reached the cusp of its post-war economic “MIRACLE”. Anyone who is able to move is either on the road or at their desti- nation, anxious to enjoy their new found and fragile prosperity.

What would you have done?

What happens afterwards is the story of this film. Its title is Il Sorpasso, literally meaning “The Overtaking”, but transposed into English as “The Easy Life”. Its original title references the aspirations of Italians to shake off their past by overtaking the cultural roadblocks separating them from what they hoped would be a radiant and prosperous future. Directed by Dino Risi at his artistic peak, it is a key film that moves beyond neorealism to become one of the first examples of the “commedia all’italiana”. It will consolidate the road movie genre and inspire films like “Easy Rider”.

Those of us who descend from the post-War Italian diaspora can easily recognise the stories told in neorealist films such as Roma città aperta, Sciuscià and Ladri di biciclette, because they belonged to the generation that left a war ravaged country to make a new life outside of Italy. Instead, the films of the “commedia all’italiana” speak of a different Italy, one that can be hard to decipher for Italian-Australians.

Many of us have crossed the oceans, attracted by Italy’s siren call, often in the hope of making sense of our fragmented identities: to connect the ‘Italian’ part of ourselves with Italy through our own private “sorpassi” over our own cultural roadblocks. However, on our arrival it is the Italy of the “commedia all’italiana” that we encounter, not the “neorealist” Italy of the stories handed down by our families. To bridge this gap many of us have sought to eke out the traces of this older more familiar Italy, to read the lingering ruins, to encourage our relatives to talk about a past that once bound all our fami- lies together. But it is a difficult if not impossible task and our relatives, even if they lived through those times, are reluctant to dwell on them. They have moved on. We realise that we are orphans of our own “Italian” identities. On our return to Australia we try to explain to our families what  we found only to be met with blank stares or a dismissive wave of the hand accompanied by the words: “Italy is not what it once was.” But if Italy is not what it once was, where does that leave us?

Watching Il Sorpasso may help us fill this gap. It crosses the cultural divide from the Italy our parents or our grandparents knew of the Italy of today. We will be able to identify with the diligent young protagonist of the story, naively loyal to his parents expecta- tions and desires, before he is seduced away by the spirit of the dawning age. Just like the protagonist, we will be unable to resist the invitation to bite deeply into the fruit of knowledge. And if we survive this rite of passage, we may even end up identifying with our seducer. In the end, the only Italy we will be able to relate to is the Italy of today that we have discovered for ourselves, as tragic-comic as it often is. We may have to forge another understanding of who we are. In this process what we thought were our exclusively “Australian” parts will become indispensable. Perhaps we may learn to appreciate our separate and ephemeral “best times in life”. Either way, as happens to the two protagonists, our lives will change forever.

Gerardo Papalia
Dr. Gerardo Papalia is a Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He has completed degrees in Italy and Australia and has taught in universities in both countries. He is a specialist in the study of the history and culture of the Italian diaspora in Australia which he analyses through post-structuralist theoretical approaches. His publications cover a wide range of disciplines including history, cinematography, religious belief, literature and cultural hybridity.

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