In most recent years few Italian filmmakers have managed to establish themselves beyond the boot-shaped land, but Neapolitan Paolo Sorrentino has gradually managed to bring back Italy’s filmmaking grandeur to worldwide audiences.
The Italian director established himself internationally with the movie “Il Divo,” that wackily depicted the life of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. The film piqued Sean Penn’s interest, to the point that the actor decided to star in Sorrentino’s drama, “This Must Be The Place,” as a middle-aged wealthy rock star, bored in his retirement, who took on the quest of finding his father’s Nazi War criminal tormentor.
Sorrentino’s latest film, “The Great Beauty,” echoes some of the best Italian classics of the fifties, that denounced the social malaise of their time. “La Grande Bellezza” (the Italian title), recalls Fellini’s savory depictions of Rome in all its sumptuousness, flightiness and gimmick. The circus portrayed by the parties, the preposterous conversations, the efforts to overcome the city’s loitering, are overlooked with cynicism and conscience by Jep, a journalist and socialite, whose one novel, “The Human Apparatus,” haunts him as a reminder of unrealized promise.
“The Great Beauty” brings Sorrentino’s focus back to his mother country, through an exquisite ode to great filmmaking that blends make believe with reality, loud boisterous scenes with intimate quiet ones. He’s been rewarded with a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. This undoubtedly marks a comeback of sorts for Italian cinema. The last Italian director to win a Golden Globe was Giuseppe Tornatore 25 years ago, for “Nuovo Cinema Paradiso.” Roberto Benigni with “Life Is Beautiful,” in 1999, was the last Italian filmmaker to win a BAFTA and an Oscar.
With “The Great Beauty” now playing in select theaters and Oscar night a mere week away, Indiewire spoke with Sorrentino about his awards run and the state of Italian cinema.
What inspired “The Great Beauty”?
There is nothing autobiographical, but there certainly are a lot of personal things. For example, my disillusioned approach towards the same matters that afflict the lead character. Probably that is what I relate to and I feel the closest to.
Many have compared “The Great Beauty” to Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and “8½”; all your films are defined by a very eclectic style, which directors influenced you?
Undoubtedly Fellini is a director I loved a lot, just as Scorsese, and several recent American film-makers, like the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, and many more, whose work I watched with high esteem and appreciation.
So far how is your Hollywood experience going?
I’m currently very engaged with the promotion of “The Great Beauty” in the United States, which is going well for a movie that isn’t in the English language. America in general — especially the big cities such as New York and Los Angeles — is a place where the motion pictures are highly regarded and films are made with great effort and competence. This enhances the fact that “The Great Beauty” is receiving so much response, and it’s a great training for us as Italians, who might be used to a kind of film-making which is somehow more improvised. When you confront yourself with the United States’s industrial way of making movies it’s a great chance to learn.
In your experience have you found that contemporary Italian cinema is known in the U.S., or do Americans still refer to Neorealism and Spaghetti Western films?
Americans are very competent on the contemporary scene and are curious towards Italian movies that are coming out now. According to an old cliche, Americans think of Italians grounded in an outmoded ideal that no longer exists. I don’t think this still true today. Americans are very receptive to new films, such as “Gomorra” by Matteo Garrone, or my movie “Il Divo,” or Luca Guadagnino’s “I Am Love,” that don’t belong to that glorious past of Italian cinema, but have been very much acclaimed in the United States. It’s also true that not many Italian films are getting to America, but we need to work on it, and Americans are certainly favorably disposed towards them.
In “The Great Beauty,” there is a flair of social discomfort that recalls old Italian classics, such as “Bitter Rice” (Giuseppe De Santis), “The Earth Trembles” (Luchino Visconti), “Bicycle Thieves” (Vittorio De Sica), “Rome Open City” (Roberto Rossellini). Is Italy’s current malaise connected to the country being stuck in its glorious past?
In the movie I feel this is more an effect, rather than being the main topic. The themes that I confront are many and explore the human condition, existence, people’s afflictions and joys, as well as inconclusiveness, the ability of some to waste their lives and time and procrastinate. I see “The Great Beauty” more as a film focusing on comforts and discomforts of human beings and their dexterity in working their way through. As a consequence “The Great Beauty” can be seen as a film on a country that has some symptoms of numbness, decadence, at times even vulgarity. But this in general pertains to mankind, who has this incredible ability to be at once both a wretch and an outburst towards candor and beauty. It’s part of the contradictions of the human nature.
There are several scenes in the movie that play like dreams. How important is that element in cinematic language?
I see these scenes more as a representation of reality, and every director obviously declines reality in his or her own way. I did it with a certain degree of imagination, that may seem like I’m heading towards a dreamlike state. I always have reality as a starting point, then I may be drawn to portraying magicians who make giraffes vanish, but also this isn’t entirely fantasy; these are things that have actually occurred. Hence they are real, or at least plausible.
Is it true there might be an extended director’s cut of The Great Beauty?
There was the idea of a 3 hour an 10 minute version, but nothing is certain as of yet.
Why did you define Italy as a “crazy and beautiful country” at the Golden Globes?
I didn’t have much time for my award’s speech and in these occasions one must be concise. But Italy has some attitudes that may define her as crazy, in a good way of course, in the sense it can be unpredictable in all kinds of way, and it’s undoubtedly beautiful.
You dedicated the BAFTA to director Carlo Mazzacurati, who passed away in late January. Would you like to share your remembrance of him?
He’s a director I’ve loved very much, who I knew little on a personal level. We met in very few occasions, but I recall some wonderful conversations with him on the phone when my films were released. He was very supportive and perceptive, he showed me things from a different angle. Therefore I remember him fondly and I regret I didn’t have the chance to spend more time with him, but he didn’t live in Rome so it was more difficult for us to meet. He’s been a great director: a storyteller of his own poetic universe, worth remembering, that is why I wanted to tribute him.
Will the Golden Globe, the BAFTA and possibly the Oscar for “The Great Beauty” be beneficial for Italian cinema?
I hope so. Usually the international amplification of a film effects the national film industry. Italian cinema needs people to believe in it, and people who may have a bolder approach towards movies. Therefore a film whether it has been appreciated or not, with this kind of exposure can be a trigger to audacity in the making of movies.
Did you hear from Tornatore and Benigni?
After the Golden Globes I talked with both, we are good friends and they wanted to congratulate me for the award and I was delighted to hear from them.
Are you already working on another film?
In May I’ll be shooting an English-language film with Michael Caine, but I’d rather not talk about it until it’s done. I would feel presumptuous talking about a movie before I’ve finished it.