I first discovered the cinema of Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino in 2008 when I saw “Il Divo” at Cannes, which stars the incandescent Toni Servillo as former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Even though the biopic did a deep dive into decades of arcane Machiavellian politics in Italy, the movie was utterly accessible because Servillo carried you through. My second encounter with Sorrentino was also at Cannes, with his first English-language film “This Must be the Place,” which features a riveting performance from Sean Penn as an aging expat rocker who returns to his roots in America after his father dies. But the movie didn’t quite come together–Sorrentino’s English has definitely improved since then.
When I spoke to the filmmaker about his latest triumph, eventual foreign Oscar-winner “The Great Beauty” (TOH! review here), he did have a translator on hand, but he handled some of answers himself. The movie stars Servillo as a jaded Rome journalist with writer’s block whose observations about the gorgeously decadent culture around him cut with a knife. He is a social but lonely man who finds himself moved and inflamed by an unexpected relationship with a beautiful and mysterious woman. Sorrentino’s effective use of Rome as a stunning visual setting has raised comparisons to such Fellini films as “La Dolce Vita.” The director, who is 43, begs to argue.
Next up, he’s working in English again with Michael Caine in “In the Future” which starts shooting in May.
Anne Thompson: “Il Divo” led to Sean Penn, who approached you at Cannes in 2008 when he was jury president. You came up with “This Must Be The Place” for him. That must have been a tricky challenge because you were coming to America and didn’t speak English. Talk about your journey on that film.
Paolo Sorrentino: For me it was a great adventure because I grew up with American cinema, so for me to work in the United States, in the middle of America, in the midwest, in forgotten places, that was my first time. Before doing the movie, I saw just New York and San Francisco. The first time I came to LA was after “Il Divo” so I didn’t know the states. For me it was a great adventure and also, I was very eager to work with somebody like Sean Penn. He’s a great actor and I was very eager to face a stronger personality. It was a challenge that I needed to do. In my experience, of all the people that I’ve met in this world of cinema, Sean Penn is the one who best knows cinema from every direction. He’s a smart person, he has a knowledge of cinema — not of movies, but of the practical things of film. I wasn’t even aware of how much he was teaching me.
I admire “The Great Beauty,” from the amazing opening party sequence onward; was that the most challenging scene to shoot?
It was challenging because there were probably 300 people. I had a choreographer to work with a few of the dancers. It was a scene that was created with the impression that I’ve had from the people themselves. It was really the actors and the extras who defined themselves without being overly aware of how it was constructed.
Did you use long takes?
I like to do long, unseparated takes, and I have many of them. But in this one, there are cuts. I didn’t have the chance to do a longer shot until the end of the movie. Before the titles, it’s a six or seven-minute shot on the Tiber River.
Every movie has one crucial sequence, the one that is the center of the film. Is there one for you in this film?
In this movie, the crucial moments are the beginning and the end. The beginning, with the scene of the dancer, summarizes the movie. The end is the turning point, when he starts to think about what he wants to write. Also the philosophy of the movie is in the end. The most important thing that I want to say. The main character is remembering the girl when he was young. That’s a moment, for me, that is very crucial.
What do you think the movie is trying to say?
Anything. Too many things. The movie is trying to say that everybody can find a form of beauty in all the moments of his life and also in the moments where there is the vulgarity, the squalor. If you try to go out for a moment in your life, you can see the beauty everywhere in your own life.
Talk about the great scene where the woman challenges the journalist about writing a second book and he destroys her.
It’s an uncomfortable scene, where everyone is trying to use their words to fight against hypocrisy without really understanding that hypocrisy is something that we need in order to live together.
You’ve worked with Toni Servillo in many of your movies. Is he your alter-ego in this film, as the writer and the artist?
In this movie, probably yes. Not in “Il Divo.” A lot of the reasons that move me to write or make a movie are based upon a deconstruction of the relationship, or lack of a relationship, with my father. Toni, as an actor, is a way for me to explore that relationship with my father across these films, specifically because he has that age distance. He’s kind of like a paternal figure. Sevillo is 54 and I am 43, so it’s a tough question to answer. When I psychoanalyze myself too much, then I start to get scared and not actually explore it as far as I’d like to. I transfer a lot the analysis of the relationship that I had with my father into Toni.
I’m curious about your being on the Oscar trail. What are your observations about this process?
I’ve relied a lot on people who are experts more so than I am, to get the film seen by the right people, but it’s really hard to talk about my thoughts now because I’m still right in the middle of this really fast-moving, beautiful dream, or carousel. I need some time to reflect on it once I’m out of it because I’m still part of it and it’s wonderful.
You’re carrying the banner for your country for the first time in a few years.
The movie won at the European Film Awards, and the Golden Globes.
Part of the visual joy of “The Great Beauty” is how you film Rome. How did you take advantage of the city as a location?
Rome is a very beautiful city. I live there as a tourist without a return ticket. I wanted to transfer the point-of-view that I have with Rome into this main character who’s also, like me, not from Rome, adding that observational quality about the beauty of the city. I wanted to show how incredibly creative and constructive Italians can be when they put their minds to it, as represented by the monuments.
What films inspired you? It feels original. People say Fellini, but I say original.
I agree with you. I didn’t have any references for this movie. In “Il Divo,” there was reference to Fellini and nobody recognized the inspiration. For this movie, I didn’t have Fellini in mind from a visual point of view. But people say it’s Fellini. It doesn’t bother me. He’s my favorite director.
The way you handle the tragic love story is very opaque. You leave mystery. Why? (SPOILER ALERT)
I wanted the relationship to develop in a way that’s quite simple and natural between them, and that is quite different from how he has to be in these relationships that are very artificial. By interrupting this relationship because she dies, it’s sort of a moment that creates an obstacle for him reflecting on his life but is also the genesis for him to be able to reflect on his life.
Did you use particular places in Rome that were hard to film or required permission?
Yes. But I actually didn’t even get access to some historical buildings.
Some of it’s real and created? Where did you find that amazing apartment that overlooks the Coliseum?
Most of it is real. That’s true, come to Rome and I’ll show it you. It was empty and I put in the furniture and plants. It’s an apartment they are selling.
Why shoot in 35mm?
For several reasons. From a visual point-of-view, I prefer 35mm. Digital improves a lot but it has something too perfect for my taste. I have done shorts in digital. The movies are all in 35. With 35mm, because of the process, it seems like the actors and the crew are far more concentrated. Because the camera is so heavy and everything is slow to get ready, when it comes time to shoot it becomes like a ritual. Nothing is taken for granted the way it might be when you shoot digitally.
How many takes do you usually do?
Sometimes I do 20, 25, and sometimes I do two. It depends on the problems I meet.
Did you enhance or manipulate the 35mm images via a digital intermediate?
Yes. As little as possible, because the technology is giving us too many chances, and when you have too many chances, you run the risk of losing stability.
What are you doing next?
I am going to a movie [“In the Future”] in the English-language with Michael Caine about a classical music composer. It’s set in the mountains of Italy, on the border between Italy and Switzerland. It will probably a UK, Italian and French co-production.