Bellissima! Paolo Sorrentino satirizes modern Rome in 'The Great Beauty'


Italian filmmakers over the years have depicted Rome in many ways, from tragic (Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 Rome: Open City) to a city gone euphoric (Matt Tyrnauer’s dazzling 2008 Valentino: The Last Emperor doc). But few have put their stamp on Rome like Federico Fellini in classics like La Dolce Vita, 8 ½ and Roma, celebrating such Felliniesque concerns as spectacle, cinema, religion and fame.

Now, recalling that master, Paolo Sorrentino, who most notably directed the exuberant and brilliant political biopic Il Divo, takes us on his own tour-de-force tour of Rome with The Great Beauty, highlighting an Eternal City all his own whose beauty is occasionally disrupted by the grotesque, even the hideous.

Leaving behind the politics that fueled Il DivoSorrentino’s explosive take on the unstoppable Giulio Andreotti, one of Italy’s most notorious and corrupt post-war politicos—he zooms in on the superficial lifestyles of a spoiled and privileged gaggle of mostly idle Romans. The characters are many and most party hard, including aging journalist hero Jep Gambardella (Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo, arguably Italy’s most acclaimed and versatile film actor working today).

Also like Fellini, Sorrentino, with journalist Jep as his main protagonist, uses the device of a native observer to troll through the inner circles of Rome’s often decadent social-climbing populace. As a kind of outsider (Fellini’s Mastroianni being another), Jep can claim some bystander status that bestows much-needed drops of purity and innocence. Charming in his own way, he also elicits viewer sympathy as he contemplates his life amongst so many empty but “beautiful people.”

Sorrentino’s plot, more anecdotal than driving narrative, follows the 65-year-old Jep, addicted party boy, stunted novelist and lifelong bachelor, on a self-examining pilgrimage through the Rome he loves as he questions his life. The journey, which mainly has the hero wandering Rome’s empty late-night and early-dawn streets, reveals an invented Rome Fellini might have appreciated. Gone are the pedestrians, noise, traffic, garbage.

But The Great Beauty is hardly quiet, as it bursts with nonstop audio and visual splashes that accompany sketches of Jep hanging with his upper-crust clique at dinners, restaurants, parties and oddball art happenings. All that frolicking is occasionally hushed by the hero’s frequent side glances at the quiet Catholic clergy, shrines and schools almost alien in his hedonistic midst but eternal to Rome.

Not so quiet are the many characters in the film who are gossipy chatterboxes. Strident Italian pop and disco sounds flood a soundtrack also shared by classical music and sacred pieces identified with the Church. Sorrentino describes this blend as “best suited to the film because it’s an inevitable mix of the sacred and profane that is Rome.”

Like Fellini, Sorrentino depicts his Rome. In addition to the posh hangouts of the film’s meandering, restless partygoers and social butterflies, it’s a Rome of ancient ruins, musty ancient and modern interiors, expansive exteriors of hilly cityscapes and so much aged stone and strange artwork. Much on view is enshrouded in mystery, as Sorrentino’s “beauty” is captured nocturnally.

Charity and redemption are left to the Church (if even they bother). It’s a city somehow frozen in a special time zone that only the film’s protagonists can know, that only Sorrentino (or a Fellini) could have imagined.

Sorrentino’s Rome, like Fellini’s, is a kind of cinematic high-end department store window where the “mannequins,” fashionably dressed but lacking souls, do a lot of navel-gazing and pleasure-seeking. In Sorrentino’s (and Fellini’s) microcosm, the Romans on view are usually the movers and shakers and upper-class glitterati around whom flutter wannabes, weirdos, artists, phonies, eccentrics, and even a most-wanted multi-millionaire hiding in plain sight.

Says Sorrentino, “Rome in the movie is to remind us how completely Italian and unique it is, a beauty full of treasures without match. Rome is my way of telling tales about the people who live there. But I tried to approach Rome as if it were the first time anyone filmed it.”

Asked about the origin of his idea for The Great Beauty, Sorrentino explains, “I had been thinking a long time about a film which probes the contradictions, the beauties, the scenes I have witnessed and the people I’ve met in Rome. I was always accumulating little stories and ideas based on things I’ve observed, whether funny or just things representative of Rome, maybe even something painful. But this accumulation was confusing, so I kept putting things off until I realized that the idea of a traveler moving through his city would serve as an ideal storyteller and enable me to organize. And that element was the character of Jep, who was the last piece of the puzzle, and who made the whole concept of the film possible and less confused.”

Jep, never married but no stranger to affairs, is a world-weary, serial party-goer who, as a veteran journalist and onetime best-selling novelist, gets invited everywhere and can’t say no. What sets him off on his journey of discovery is a kind of spiritual hangover after an all-night 65th birthday celebration that had hundreds packed onto his roof. The morning after, Jep is finally feeling his age and sensing the mortality that awaits him.

Sorrentino likes his hero. “I admire him, why not? I find myself seeing the world his way, detached and having difficulty being surprised by things around us. I understand Jep. I guess I share some of his condition and must accept this or I’ll be unhappy.”

Like Andreotti in Il Divo but to a lesser degree, Sorrentino lets Jep, also corrupted, get away with things. Asked about this similarity, Sorrentino answers, “Yes, that’s interesting, isn’t it? I think it reflects my belief that there isn’t always justice in the world and people more often get away with things. Those who get caught and punished are much fewer.” Not that The Great Beauty is an exercise in cynicism, as Jep does achieve measures of redemption.

Although the film is specific to a place and milieu, it played very well throughout Italy. Explains Sorrentino: “In today’s world, cultural and social differences have narrowed thanks to television and other things, so even those not in the stratum of society I depict can enjoy it. The film did well everywhere, even in the south.”

Sorrentino won’t escape the Fellini connection, although he’s ambiguous about the comparisons. “It doesn’t bother me that many may see traces of La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 or Roma [in the film]. In fact, I’m flattered but cannot claim Fellini as a great inspiration, because he’s such a master of cinema and I’d run the risk of being ridiculous. But I acknowledge I share the same mood and sense of people feeling they have no ground to stand on. And I share his idea that life can go by us as a carnival.”

Also an admirer of filmmakers like Ettore Scola, Marco Ferreri and Mario Monicelli, he adds, “Masterpieces should be watched but not imitated.”

The Great Beauty is Italy’s official entry for the 2014 Academy Awards foreign-language race, following bows at Cannes and Toronto. Just recently it received four nominations in the European Film Awards competition, whose winners will be announced on Dec. 7 in Berlin. Beauty has nominations for best film, best director, best actor for Servillo, and best screenplay, which Sorrentino shares with his co-writer and another frequent collaborator, Umberto Contarello.

Contarello, an established screenwriter, has been Sorrentino’s friend since childhood and was key to giving him his start in writing. Sorrentino explains his co-writing process with Contarello as “going back and forth with our own versions of the script until a shooting script, always ripe for even more improvement, is achieved.”

Loyalty, often associated with Romans and Italians, has certainly characterized Sorrentino and his career. Indigo Film, his production backer, is just another example. For at least five years now, Italy’s film industry and moviemakers have suffered like other sectors because of the economic downturn, which more harshly impacted Italy than most other European countries. But Sorrentino has had the great fortune to have the support of Indigo, which got behind his 1998 short “Love has No Boundaries” and has produced or co-produced all of his films since.

Equally important has been Sorrentino’s long collaboration with Servillo, who dazzled as the sleazy, cool, calculating rogue politician Andreotti in Il Divo. It began in 2001 on his first feature, the dramatic comedy One Man Up, winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Silver Ribbon for Best Director and Best Screenplay. (Servillo’s other screen triumphs have included starring roles in Gomorrah and the shamefully overlooked A Quiet Life).

Asked what makes this collaboration so binding and successful, Sorrentino loses no time in proclaiming: “We laugh a lot together!” That bond sounds pretty Italian, if not Roman. Although universal may be more accurate.

Loyalty also links Sorrentino with Beauty cinematographer Luca Bigazi and editor Cristiano Travaglioli, both of whom also helped make the award-winning hit Il Divo so visually memorable.

That loyalty breeds trust. On The Great Beauty, Sorrentino says that even in pre-production he was aware of the film’s potential for “visual overload,” but trusted his collaborators to allow his direction to accommodate this density.

Regarding cinematographer Bigazi and their partnership, Sorrentino says he’s “always happy to discover the lighting he has created, rather than give him guidance in advance.”

Sorrentino’s resume also includes The Consequences of Love, which premiered in competition at Cannes and won five top David di Donatello Awards. Following the 2008 Cannes Jury Prize winner Il Divo came This Must Be the Place in 2011, a pan-European production starring Sean Penn and distributed by The Weinstein Company. The English-language film allowed Sorrentino to spend “two wonderful years” traveling between Europe and the United States to get the film made.

Sorrentino was born in in 1970 in Naples, the big southern Italian city known for things large (people, gestures, amours, pizza, lipstick, traffic, big hair, noise, history). But to many, Naples is also known for being poor. When asked why his films don’t deal with poverty, Sorrentino takes time to consider and grows a tad defensive. “I find it hard to answer. There must be a reason, but I don’t think it’s connected to my being from Naples. Naples is a rich city as well, there are rich people there and it’s a vital cultural center. I don’t see the poverty; I see the elegant, never vulgar, and the highly educated. I rarely tackle poverty and I don’t know the reason.”

As Sorrentino questions his themes and dismisses notions of a Fellini homage, he also denies the suspicion that The Great Beauty may be an allegory for much that ails Rome and the entire country, its indifference to dysfunction, the pervasive inefficiencies, a lack of economic progress, the national pessimism and, well, poverty.

Well, no, says the filmmaker. “The film is mostly about the fatigue of life, mortality, the people in it.” But there is also the sense that Sorrentino’s characters are partying while Rome burns. Still Sorrentino backs away: “Indirectly, it’s a tale about the present in our country, but it is not at all meant to be pessimistic.”

The Great Beauty provides ample evidence that Sorrentino is an effusive proclaimer of what captures his fancy, not an evasive denier of what lies in the metaphorical cracks and shadows of the Rome he loves.