Essential Art House Road Movies

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A commedia all’italiana classic arrives on Blu-ray via Criterion next week. Dino Risi’s Il sorpasso finds an unlikely duo — the young, shy Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and the older, freewheeling Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) — on a madcap road trip through Rome, Lazio, and Tuscany. The odd couple’s adventures veer from comedy to tragedy as themes of love, masculinity, repression, and self-discovery are explored. The influential film is a striking portrait of the struggles of modern life in Italy during the 1960s, using the road as a metaphor for discovery and expansion — not only in the case of Roberto and Bruno, but also the national identity. Here are other 10 other art house road films that journey down similar paths.

La strada

La strada (“the road” in Italian) bears all the visual trademarks of Federico Fellini’s oeuvre: the waif, the carnival, the sea, the vastness of the landscape. The director once described the film as “a complete catalogue of [his] entire mythological world, a dangerous representation of [his] identity that was undertaken with no precedent whatsoever.” It was the movie the launched Fellini to international stardom, marked his turn away from neorealism, and precipitated a nervous breakdown. A brutish strongman and the servile woman who assists his circus act (breaking a chain with his hulking chest) travel from town to town in a rickety caravan. They embark on an odyssey of cruelty, innocence, loneliness, and desire that belongs to its maker as much as the characters.

Stranger Than Paradise

Jim Jarmusch’s breakthrough film (his second) established the director as an influential storyteller in the American road movie genre. His minimalist interpretation, marked by long, static shots and a stark, black-and-white aesthetic, would shape the style of future films. As with most of Jarmusch’s road tales, Stranger Than Paradise — focused on a New York hipster (and friends) who ventures to Cleveland and Florida — uses the road as a platform for outsiders who are strangers in their own country, exploring the motivations behind their journey.

Wild Strawberries

Ingmar Bergman’s answer to the road movie reflects on the life of an aging professor (Victor Sjöström) who is forced to confront his memories, and the regrets that come along with them, as he approaches death. His awakening is aided by his daughter-in-law and is reflected in the hitchhikers they pick up while traveling the open road.

Alice in the Cities

“He is attracted to the road movie, to American myth, to those who stand outside and witness suffering,” Roger Ebert once wrote of Wim Wenders. Alice in the Cities is the first entry in the German director’s Road Movie trilogy (followed by 1975’s The Wrong Move and 1976’s Kings of the Road), which acted as a template for his larger productions (most notably, Paris, Texas) and influenced then up-and-comers like Jim Jarmusch. Alice follows a journalist who is tasked with caring for a young girl left behind by her mother. The duo wanders through various cities searching for her family. Beyond this, ”Alice in the Cities is a film with a great deal to say about Europe and America, about the exhaustion of dreams and the homogenization of nations, about roots and the awareness of time, about sterility and creativity, about vicarious and real adventure and, eventually, about the possibilities of the future.”

Vagabond

Agnès Varda’s Vagabond tells the story of the death of a young female drifter. Beginning with the discovery of her body, Varda takes a nonlinear approach to examine Mona’s life and mysterious fate, intercut with documentary-style interviews and captured-on-camera conversations that constantly shifts our perspective of the events. “It’s not wandering, it’s withering,” a farmer who sets out to help Mona says of the unknown path she travels, but Mona’s view is unwavering.

Pierrot le fou

Iconic Godard protagonists Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina escape bourgeois life and an Algerian hit man by taking a Bonnie and Clyde-style road trip toward the Mediterranean. The road also takes us on a tour of the many cinematic, literary, and art historical references that have shaped the themes prevalent throughout Godard’s fascinating career.

Wild at Heart

Perhaps the most mainstream film on the list, but structured for art house audiences, David Lynch’s surrealist, sex-laden road film, Wild at Heart, is a tale of modern romance told through a B-film lens. “Wild At Heart is a road movie… in as much as the characters bump into these horrible people as you would going down a road in reality,” the director said of his picture. “It was a very difficult structure, you know, to have the film move forward, and still be able to go off at tangents. It was a struggle. This kind of structure is something I’ve never attempted before, so I look on it as some kind of achievement. It allows seemingly unrelated things to happen.”

They Caught the Ferry

A man and a woman embark on a morbid motorcycle trip in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s vérité-style road fable that was intended as a 1940’s propaganda piece warning Denmark’s residents about the dangers of driving too fast.

Happy Together

Wong Kar-wai’s turbulent romantic drama centers on a relationship between two Chinese men that falls apart while on holiday traveling the road in Argentina. Speaking to the film’s themes of masculinity and cultural escapism, author Jeremy Tambling writes: “The car will not go properly; the technology will not come to the rescue and provide the future that the Americans dream of — the association of the road movie providing the exotic, thus being colonial in its inspiration — and which the Chinese need.”

The Wages of Fear

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s gripping story finds two desperate men from an impoverished South American village attempting to cheat death by transporting a dangerous shipment of nitroglycerine across the treacherous terrain. The film depicts a tangled web of politics and greed under the guise of a road adventure film.