If you believe what you read in the papers, Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” is the latest in a string of Italian movies to position the country in a less than flattering light: “Reality” and “Videocracy” assailed the country’s Orwellian media industry; “Gomorra” unveiled its criminal underground; “We Have a Pope” mocked its religious core. “The Great Beauty,” however, only deals with political ramifications through their absence: Sorrentino’s expressionistic opus depicts a group of aging artists tired of dealing with the world to the point where they’ve rejected it.
Sorrentino is certainly a lot more productive than Jep Gambardella, the jaded writer played by Sorrentino regular Tony Servillo, though the director can still relate to the notion of divesting himself from his country’s socioeconomic problems. In his filmmaking, the ambivalence of the Berlusconi era speaks for itself. “I find Italian politics extremely boring and not long-lasting,” he said in a recent conversation in New York, at the offices of Janus Films, which releases the film on Friday. Speaking through a translator, the frazzle-haired Sorrentino rarely looked up, instead casually doodling figures on a stray piece of paper. “I want for my movie to reflect feelings that people feel everywhere,” he continued. “Wasting time is something that people do or feel all over the world, not just in Italy.”
To a certain extent, “The Great Beauty” is a fantasy film lost in the vivid corners of its lead character’s mind. In the extraordinary 10 minute opening sequence, Sorrentino depicts a wildly hedonistic party populated by Jep and countless other carelessly energetic individuals dancing the night away, while Sorrentino’s camera plays up the empty lavishness of their existence to such an extent that at one point, it actually swirls upside down. The rest of the two hour-plus movie virtually maintains that perspective as Jep struggles to make heads or tails of his priorities. He moans about a desire to write again but spends most of his time lying around with old colleagues joking about the old days. Sorrentino characterized their mindset as both “lethargic” and “asleep.”
Yet despite such a dour prognosis on the state of the Italy’s weary upper class, “The Great Beauty” does its title proud, as Sorrentino loads the movie with an overwhelmingly dense soundtrack blending pop songs and opera that echoes the intense quality in which Jep’s consciousness tends to drift: More than once, the movie flashes back to his ebullient youth, with images of lost love and poignant exchanges tellingly juxtaposed with his listless present, when even high art strikes him as a feeble punchline. There’s a modicum of plot involving Jep’s tenuous romance with a stripper (Sabrina Ferilli) and a wizened nun (Sonia Gessner) who falls into Jep’s social circle to remind them of their empty lives. For the most part, though, “The Great Beauty” wanders through its setting with a mixture of awe and contempt.
One of the richest portraits of a disgruntled writer since Philip Roth created Nathan Zuckerman, Jep is not an unfamiliar personality in the Sorrentino oeuvre: His last movie, the bizarrely miscalculated English language effort “This Must Be the Place,” featured Sean Penn as a disaffected rock star; in 2008’s lavish biopic “Il Divo,” Sorrentino explored the life of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti with a symphonic rhythm that carried one scene to the next, once again inhabiting the puzzling worldview of a man who has survived a reckless career but may no longer have much to live for. “When I made a movie on Andreotti, in reality, I didn’t want to look at him as a politician, but as a human being,” Sorrentino said. “What I’m interested in is human beings alone.”
The prospects of an intimately human dimension in a movie dominated by style has divided critics of Sorrentino’s films, including the latest one, but its high art aesthetic caught the right eyes when it screened in competition at Cannes earlier this year: Criterion Collection CEO Peter Becker decided to throw the company’s Janus Films label back into the distribution game. Just as Jeb wrestles with the possibility of writing another great novel, over the past decade, Janus has struggled with the prospects of returning to the field of releasing acclaimed international cinema of the sort that put it on the map: “The Great Beauty” is only the third title that the the company has opened in five years (the Oscar-nominated “Revanche” in 2008 marked its first theatrical title in 30 years; it opened Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre” in 2011).
However, according to Becker, the choice with regard to “The Great Beauty” was a no-brainer. “Everyone loved it in Cannes, but we loved it most of all,” he said, recalling his e-mail to European sales company Pathé after the premiere. “I told them I thought they had a masterpiece on their hands,” he said. “We were shocked when the Cannes jury unaccountably overlooked the film, but it probably worked to our advantage.”
Appropriately, with its sweeping formalism exploring both the antiquated elements of Italian society and a contemporary disconnect, “The Great Beauty” has invited comparisons to another epic considered topical in its day — Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” — although Sorrentino himself dodges the possible connection. “These comparisons are more a tool for spectators who use it recognize things as opposed to getting to know things,” he said, adding that he views “The Great Beauty” as being in tune with only his previous films. “It’s a product of many different things,” he said. “Some are elements of real people, some parts from my imagination, some that are parts of myself in a camouflaged way. It is invented, but it could correspond to reality.”
Told that the very possibility of connections between his films implies a certain value in reading into their thematic continuity, he finally looked up from his impromptu sketchpad, answered slowly and then wandered over to a nearby window to smoke while his translator spoke his reply. As he gazed out on the city street, silhouetted by the late afternoon sun while his words came from another direction, Sorrentino suddenly looked like he was inhabiting a scene from one his wistful films. “One thing I may be interested in is the relationship of power and strength between people, because of the psychological implications of that,” he said. “I have learned that I will not pay any attention to anything people say about my movies, because people say things that are all over the place.” According to Sorrentino, to understand his wavelength, you just have to pay attention. “I think cinema has this beautiful component,” he said. “It’s a universal language.”