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Director's Cut: Paolo Sorrentino ('The Great Beauty')

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The easy way to pitch Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty" is to say that it's essentially a modern update of "La Dolce Vita", but such a reductive distillation might unfairly diminish the value of Sorrentino's latest and most opulent film, which is only familiar in the way that it's core ideas are as eternal as Rome itself. A dizzyingly dense 140-minutes, "The Great Beauty" is an alternately electric and mournful tour of the Italian capital as it exists today, wedged between the past and the future as the people inside its majestically crumbling walls try to make sense of their place in this bountiful history. Ostensibly the story of a writer named Jep Gambardella (Sorrentino mainstay Toni Servillo) who begins to grapple with his mortality in the days following his lavish, choreographed, and morbidly oversexed 65th birthday party, "The Great Beauty" merely uses its protagonist as a reflective spirit guide as the film tours Rome and the circus of personalities who keep it alive (or die trying).

As Jep becomes increasingly obsessed with his past and the women who comprise it, Sorrentino spins the character's reveries into a tender yet acidic portrait of how Rome is a perpetually recurring collision between the sacred and the profane. The film is satirical but never spiteful or overbearing, Toni Servillo's wrinkled face leading us through the various episodes until even the present moment feels like a memory being revisited and resigned to. And Sorrentino, whose "Il Divo" established him as a major voice in contemporary Italian cinema, never gets so consumed in his maximalist approach that he forgets to make things fun, even if "The Great Beauty" uncovers the immortal dangers that lurk in our short-lived delights.

Earlier this month I sat down with Sorrentino in the offices of The Criterion Collection, who – as with all titles distributed by Janus Films, Criterion – will eventually be releasing "The Great Beauty" on DVD & Blu-ray. With the help of a translator (whose previous client was The Pope!) we had a refreshingly blunt chant about women, death, and other things that terrify us.

FILM.COM: This is partially a film about people who are simultaneously obsessed with their mortality and how to ignore it. I wonder if the perceived immortality of Rome, "The Eternal City," makes the people who live there lose sight of what's important, or how short life is.

PAOLO SORRENTINO: Very good question, but I think we're getting way too complicated for me right now. I never saw this movie as dealing with mortality, but it was more on Jep's awareness of how he was wasting time, wasting his life away, and on the impact of all this time-wasting. And so, he realizes that this is a fundamental component of the beauty of life. I don't know whether or not I answered the question, but this is as close as I can get.

Well, I wonder about Jep and the idea of wasting time...  he says in the film that he was destined for sensibility, and I wonder if you feel if artistic types and artists are cursed by their perspective, and by extension maybe incapable of enjoying the moment the way that some other people can?

Massively so. I think it is a curse for the artist, for sure. But the contradiction is that, at the same time, it is also the artist's greatest resource, to continue living, and it is the source of the artist's work. So artists experience this paradox, which is that the very same thing that makes them extremely vulnerable is their greatest resource, even in terms of making a living.

This film feels so much like a stream of consciousness, so I'm naturally curious as to what the writing process was like. Did you first create these individual episodes and then figure out what order to put them in? Or was the process more linear?

I went front-to-back chronologically, so even stories that may come off as being separate, in my mind are threaded together by imaginary threads.

That's surprising, because I would assume there were a lot of scenes that you wrote but ultimately didn't include in the movie... but maybe that's not true, given that you wrote it from front-to-back?

There are still many scenes that did not make it into the film.

Will we ever get to see them?

If I get permission for it, you will.

Speaking of how time flows in this story, one major reference point for me, apart from "La Dolce Vita" and its ilk, was Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut". So much has been made of the Italian films that you're influenced by and sort of echoing in this movie, but were there films from elsewhere in the world that you consciously channeled as a contemporary artist into this particular movie?

The issue of other filmmakers that you find inspiring is tricky because it's always totally subconscious. Consciously, you never want to go there, because you're afraid that it will be just a pale imitation. So, subconsciously, there are very many of them, both Italian and non-Italian, especially American.

Just about filmmaking some more, one of the things- ever since you used an Antony and the Johnsons song in one of your earlier films, I've always been really excited about how you use music. What I thought was so interesting about the music in this film is how it recurs, how the songs return. It's not unlike the movements of a symphony. Did you build the film around the music, like scaffolding? 

Music always comes first for me, or together with the writing, never in post. Usually, in my scripts, I provide specific musical indications, and often music helps me write specific scenes, so then it ends up being in the soundtrack. And the repetition of it is based on the fact that I wanted to stress the fact that life is tiring because it is an endless repetition of itself. So, by repeating the music, you will sort of nail this subject.

There's a line early in the movie, where one of the actresses says that there are no good roles for actresses in Italy, and there's just something about that that made me think about how Jep sees women as disposable, but also as the most important touchstones in his life, to which he returns in his mind again and again. And I wonder, if the relationship you posit between the sacred and the profane in contemporary Rome is analogous to how men often see women... 

You're asking very difficult questions.

Well, your movie made me think very difficult thoughts.

The film was meant to inspire very difficult thoughts in people, but what I hadn't planned was the return, when people would then ask me those questions. [Laughs].

Um, I think that males in general, whenever they have to list the things that they find hardest to decipher, women are at the top. So, we are completely unable to understand women, and before anything you cannot decipher, a normal reaction is to have a dismissive attitude. And so, this is what you do with anything that scares you. On the one hand, you find them attractive, but on the other hand, you tend to treat them badly, because you're scared of them.

I know you're fond of the Fellini quote in which he talks about how his is the cinema of lies, and I always love what Werner Herzog says about the ecstatic truth, about how the most honest things are mined not via mining "documentary reality" but rather via subverting it. So, I wonder, in some way, would you consider this film to be your documentary of Rome?

I will say that I made this movie for me to be able to fully understand what I did, what I set out to do. Maybe ten years from now I'll be able to look back and understand it more specifically. The thing is, even though you think a lot about your movie, and there's a lot of preparation behind it, the final end result completely goes beyond it. It's not something you're aware of. So that's why, whenever you ask questions of filmmakers about their recent work, the answers tend to be disappointing, and I'm part of that.

Well, we can talk about process of actually making it. Your films are very visually striking, and I'm curious how determined the look is bey the time you show up to set. Is everything storyboarded, or do you sort of improvise based on what these spaces give you on any given day?

No, the first movies I did, I did always in storyboard, for everything. Now, film after film, I don't do exactly storyboard. I plan some things, but then when I go on set, I decide on other stuff throughout. There are few things, a few cardinal scenes that I still like to decide about before we shoot.

Did you feel like storyboarding held you back and that not storyboarding allows you to see more possibilities?

I used to do the storyboards because I didn't feel that sure of myself, back then. But now that I've acquired craft and I know that, even if I were to end up on set with no great idea developed, I would still be able to pull off a decent scene. I feel a lot freer, and it's definitely a lot more fun.

More fun, that's good. It's important. So, my last question is probably going to be a very bad one in light of what you were saying about the film being so recent. But I found it very interesting that you're pretty young, and Fellini was only 40 when he made "La Dolce Vita", and both of the films are about older men reflecting wistfully on their lives... and I wonder why you felt compelled, at such a young age, to make this movie that feels so reflective, and do you think the movie would be very different if you made it 20 years from now?

The fear of old age is something that one feels when they're younger. Once you get to being old, you're already there, so you don't even think about it anymore. So, I think that being obsessed with the passing of time and getting older is something that one feels a lot in their 40s. And I find myself, at a beautiful age, and I'm conscious of the time. I know I'm heading toward something different, and I spend, in my 40s, most of my time doing very precise, arithmetic calculations of how many days and years I have ahead of me. I feel like those calculations ended up with me making this movie.

"The Great Beauty" opens in theaters on November 15th. The Criterion Collection will release it on DVD & Blu-ray in 2014.