Paolo Sorrentino’s newest film, “The Great Beauty,” opens with a scene of eerie, stunning serenity. As a group of tourists stand taking pictures on a gorgeous terrace overlooking the Roman skyline, a chorus of women belt out an ethereal Yiddish-language composition by David Lang. The moments pass with almost religious conviction, the camera slowly imparting architectural wonder to the audience, arch by arch. Then, the sudden collapse of a tourist interrupts the pristine atmosphere of worship, both sacred and secular.
There is a pause, a few seconds of contemplation. We ponder death, life, and the enormity of art. It is, perhaps, profound. But before we can finish the thought, there is a boom. We have been transported to the debauched world of Berlusconi-era Italy, full of giant models, small men and a throbbing commitment to loud sensuality. It’s a disco on a roof, the music blasting into a crowd of socialites and their hired entertainment. We have been rushed from the excess of classical art to the excesses of modern decadence. In a word, this is Sorrentino.
Of course, it’s also not far from another, more easily recognizable voice: Federico Fellini. “The Great Beauty” is in many ways a direct descendant of “La Dolce Vita.” Its protagonist, Gep Gambardella, is a very well-connected journalist who spends the film navigating high society in the Italian capital. There are late night trips through the city’s aging palazzi, mysterious neighbors with fabulous wealth, and dinner parties with cardinals and saintly nuns. It’s a panoramic view of contemporary society, just as Dantean as the immortal 1960 adventure with Marcello Mastroianni.
Moreover, Fellini can perhaps be seen as a key to Sorrentino’s entire body of work. With “La Dolce Vita,” the master asked a question of Italian society, masculinity and subjectivity. In “8 ½,” he tried to answer it. The resulting metaphor, the climactic image of the film, was the circus. Fellini saw the whole world in terms of clowns, tightrope walkers and public spectacle. It was his joy, and his way of making sense of it all. Sorrentino is the child of this Fellini-esque circus, and has almost turned it upside down and into a world-view.
In the half-century since “8 ½,” Italy has changed a great deal. Sorrentino takes the idea of a world constantly twirling in the ring and darkens it, adopting some of Fellini’s ideas and aesthetics and molding them into a unique style of his own. His entire body of work, “The Great Beauty” included, is a beautifully rendered fantasy of the life and death of Italian society, culture and politics. All the world’s a circus, and all the men and women merely clowns, elephants and the occasional killer octopus.
What does this style actually look like? The most obvious examples are also the most absurd, the panoply of odd and occasionally grotesque minor characters that populate Sorrentino’s world. Almost the entire cast of 2011’s “This Must Be the Place” qualifies, from Frances McDormand’s firefighting dedicated wife to Judd Hirsch’s Nazi-hunting Mordecai Midler and whatever it is that David Byrne is doing. Sorrentino’s only English-language film is perhaps his most eccentric, featuring the world’s largest pistachio and a domesticated Midwestern goose named Emily.
However, this eccentricity shouldn’t be confused with ridiculousness. “This Must Be the Place” is as contemplative as it is bizarre, and Sorrentino is able to use these odd situations to conjure moments of real emotional impact. His tools are not those we usually associate with honest, heartrending storytelling but that hardly matters. Once you’ve gotten onto the right wavelength, these works speak directly into your own weird heart.
Perhaps the best way to explain this is to look at the six protagonists of his films, most of them physically strange men caught in strained relationships with society. Sean Penn’s Cheyenne is a soft-spoken retired musician with glam-rock makeup, red lipstick and long dark hair. In “Il divo,” Toni Servillo plays political king pin Giulio Andreotti as a hunched-over, aging incarnation of evil with the demeanor of a geriatric Nosferatu. Giacomo Rizzo, finally, taps into the revolting sycophantic energy of moneylender Geremia De Geremei in “The Family Friend.”
These men are all outcasts, even the more conventionally dressed protagonists of “One Man Up” and “The Great Beauty.” Despite all of their power and fame, they remain lonely and worried. They often appear initially to be much more in control of their own fate than they actually are. In “The Consequences of Love,” Titta di Girolamo (also Servillo) is presented as a clandestine VIP with a mountain of cash, but the truth is much less glamorous. In “Il divo,” Sorrentino is careful to emphasize Andreotti’s moments of inestimable control along with his grand failure to become President of the Republic. These men are small, odd skeletons teetering on the tower of fame and fortune, waiting to be pushed off by one of their own sneezes.
And around them, a circus of cinema that blurs the lines of space and time with such grace that it can be hard to identify the technical precision that engineered it. The camera seems to be moving almost constantly, a ghostly guide through a shimmering world. Whether in the crowded, baroque plastic surgeon’s palazzo in “The Great Beauty” or a widely-set sequence outlining Andreotti’s involvement with the Mafia and the Masons in “Il divo,” there is a winding, magical quality to the wandering eye. All but one of Sorrentino’s films were shot by DP Luca Bigazzi, who has also worked with Abbas Kiarostami and Gianni Amelio. Their collaboration, perhaps the most significant in Sorrentino’s career, has led to the most truthful hall of mirrors in contemporary Italian cinema.
This style compresses the has-been aristocratic denizens of the hotel in “The Consequences of Love,” illuminates the dark corners of the Italian parliament in “Il divo” and perfects the provincial loneliness of every frustrated character in “The Family Friend.” It is also a perfect complement to Sorrentino’s ingenious resistance to linear time. Andreotti’s decades of power and corruption are sent up into a tornado of murders and cover-ups that spins around his otherwise unremarkable head. Even in his first feature, “One Man Up,” the vague representation of events forces the audience to recalibrate the way it understands the film’s dual protagonists, both men named Antonio Pisapia. Sorrentino navigates his stories with style rather than narrative order, connecting things through the sensation of memory rather than the rigidity of chronology.
The invisible glue that holds it all together is music, a tool of perception that Sorrentino uses as commentary, structure and finesse. He has a gift for soundtrack assembly unlike any other. Watching “Il divo” is like watching a Quentin Tarantino film with actual historical or political consciousness. The beginning of “The Great Beauty” is only one moment of musical brilliance, pairing stoic works of classical (and contemporary classical) composition with the throbbing club anthems of Roman nightlife. He even has an ear for the saccharine, using the unfortunate state of Italian rock to comment on the falseness of marriage and family in his films. The new soundtrack to “The Great Beauty” may be his best ever.
Now, it is not for me to say, in this piece, whether we are in the midst of a resurgence (or Renaissance) of Italian cinema. Such a statement has to grapple with the inherent implication that everything up until recently was less than thrilling, a statement that would end up leveled against such awarded heads as Giuseppe Tornatore and Gabriele Salvatores. That is an argument for another time. Yet the fact remains that this moment, the time since the dual victories at Cannes of “Il divo” and Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorra” in 2008, is an exciting one. Italian cinema is alive and well, and Sorrentino is one of its central figures. “The Great Beauty” is yet another example that his is essential, socially conscious and politically wry art that is among the most important work of the 21st century.
"The Great Beauty" is now in theaters.