Interview: Paolo Sorrentino
Pangs of nostalgia turn into a full-blown existential crisis in Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, The Great Beauty. Toni Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, a Roman journalist whose life of drinking, dancing, and gossip has led him to feel “an occasional man,” to borrow a phrase from Sorrentino’s 2011 novel, Everybody’s Right. Jep’s movement within the most decadently privileged circles of the most apathetically rich is a whirl of constant overabundance, matched in tone and reach by Sorrentino’s whirling camera. The film’s opening shot cranes up and out of a cannon, literally blasting us onto the scene, and from there, this wandering eye moves through Jep’s memories and the present-tense fantasies of a city filled with ruins, throbbing with the pursuit of any and every pleasure, but at a price.
At least since Il Divo (08), and including his novel, Sorrentino’s work centers on the sentimental journeys of characters defined by a sense that “the world just happens along”—people constantly aware of the weight of their past, not haunted by it but nagged with incessant thoughts of what-could-have-been, and challenged, if amused, by the hubbub of spectacle around them.
FILM COMMENT spoke with Sorrentino during a recent visit to New York in advance of his new film’s release on November 15. During the interview Sorrentino doodled a series of cartoons straight from the world of his films: a Mr. T lookalike, a bald Jesus with stubby arms, and a bodybuilder with the Medusa’s face for a chest.
The Great Beauty
I’m wondering if there’s something that you find especially compelling about how, in modern life, we are surrounded by spectacle and commotion, but we can’t help but focus our attention on the experiences we’ve already had. What is it about sentimental journeys and about characters, like Jep in The Great Beauty, who live so much in their past that interests you?
What I find compelling is the moment in which people realize, with suffering and pain, that in the past there was a time when they were happy, because back then the present and the future coincided—they were one and the same thing. Whereas, at an adult age, the future is the future and the present is the present and they do not coincide. So they feel a subtle, deep-rooted, and unconscious suffering connected to this adult age.
These characters seem, without realizing it, to suddenly become the person that they were going to be, whether Jep, Cheyenne in This Must Be the Place, or the character in Everybody’s Right. They go back to those moments when they think they can recover the chance to become somebody new. Is there something in this that you think is connected to a certain landscape, or sense of home? That by going back to those places and re-experiencing them, something new can happen?
Yes, it may be exactly so. And I will give a short answer, which is just simply: “Yes.” Not because I don’t feel like talking, but because I feel your analysis is so beautiful that it is way superior to anything I might say in my answer, so I don’t want to do any damage to the beauty of your interpretation.
It’s just that the film is beautiful enough to make itself known to me!
Do you feel that there’s something especially alienating about the constant motion in daily life, of moving from place to place, that makes it difficult for us to connect with the past?
Yes, it’s the fragmentary nature of the movement in today’s life that makes it difficult to move in tune with the past. It’s the neurotic component of the fragmentary nature of today’s movement that makes it difficult to get in touch with the feelings that characterized the past, or other experiences.
There is a character in The Great Beauty who says: “I don’t joke about the devil,” but it seems like you enjoy “joking about the devil,” and confronting ugliness with humor. Can you talk a little bit about this?
Confronting ugliness with humor?
Yes, showing either experiences or behavior that are crude or cruel—whether politics in Il Divo, the Holocaust in This Must Be Place, or all of the debauchery in The Great Beauty—but with an irreverence. As if nothing is off limits, and the bigger the jokes are, maybe the easier it will be to deal with these things.
Yes, I think it is very true. People do that, I do that.
One of the things that I love about This Must Be the Place is how the punishment for the Nazi criminal is so in fitting with Jewish thought: there is a symmetry, at least between the humiliations, and the victimizer is made to feel exactly the way he made the victim feel.
Exactly. When I started to learn about the Holocaust I was very surprised because, for example, all the works of Simon Wiesenthal about punishment, it was exactly in this way that you say. It’s very interesting. There is never, for the Jewish people, revenge for revenge. They don’t know this thing. Me, like Italians, I know this thing.
Do you think that Cheyenne and Mordecai in This Must Be the Place use humor and maybe empathy to combat the evils or grotesquerie of the modern world?
Yes, and I share that attitude in all my films. I believe that a sense of humor is vital to deal with everything. It is the best way to get away from heaviness and to reconnect with lightheartedness. And it is a formidable tool to focus on people’s characteristics and unveil their secrets, and get in touch with truth and beauty.
This Must Be the Place
It seems that one of the things that audiences, at least in the United States, have had difficulty with in your films is the sense of humor. It’s so pronounced and so connected with grievous things, but it’s not black comedy. There’s dark subject matter and then lighthearted comedy, almost punch lines, and slapstick. I’m wondering how you came to this style.
I really don’t know how I came up with this style. I definitely didn’t study it. It is something that I think I inherited from the city I am from, Naples. The Neapolitan people grow up surrounded by this irony, 24 hours a day, so it’s something that I’ve lived and breathed with my family, with the people around me, even just with shopkeepers who I interact with two minutes a day.
One of the very striking things about all of your films, especially your last two, is the sense that the camera can go anywhere at any time. Yet scenes that would be big set pieces in other films are often just shown as glimpses. There are amazing images that in other movies would be entire chapters, and in yours are just sentences.
I don’t know how I arrived there. Can you give me an example?
The sea-monster-ship in The Great Beauty, for example. Or even when Mordecai and Cheyenne part ways at the end of This Must Be the Place, it’s just one last shot of them together.
The reason may be very plain and banal: it could be to avoid being self-satisfied.
What you end up with is this constant flow of larger-than-life images, as if seen from a passing train.
I like this image. I’m very happy about it.
Most other filmmakers, having so many of these show-stopping moments, would focus on them, but you almost show them as if they’re unimportant, or maybe that there are too many in life to pay attention to.
Yes, one may perceive that they are sort of thrown there and kind of left there, but it’s because I think that dissipating things is good. Wasting things is something that I like [to do].
The Great Beauty
I’m wondering about the depiction of women in The Great Beauty. There’s a line in your book where the protagonist sees a naked woman for the first time: “The apocalypse of a naked woman.” The movie tries to display not just how explosive sexual desire can be, but also how women are used and objectified.
Both in the film and in the book the vision is the vision of a male protagonist. And in the book it is “the apocalypse of women,” it is the view of a young man who is completely devoid of any knowledge of women and it is the first time [seeing a naked woman], and that’s why he perceives it as an apocalypse. Whereas in The Great Beauty it’s the opposite view, the protagonist is so used to and so tired of seeing women around him all the time, and having relationships with them, that he’s just exhausted. But not just by women—by many other things, too. So it’s all about the protagonist’s emotional life. It’s not reflective of my own vision of women.
Is there an aspect of misogyny to the party-life culture of The Great Beauty that you were trying to show?
No, not misogyny. Nobody has it good there, be they women or men.
Finally, I’m wondering if you could talk about these particular performances in The Great Beauty that break-up the space of the narrative: the little girl painting, the theater show near the end. These scenes send the viewer into a different reality for a time.
This movie wanted to be very free in terms of the storytelling, so I asked myself very few questions when I was plotting it out. I wanted to have complete freedom from the outset and I wanted it to be free-flowing and floating, and the storytelling is just informed by the daily life of the character. So it doesn’t follow the rules of traditional storytelling.