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By Michael Sicinski
—Bill Murray, to Chevy Chase at the end of their 1977 fistfight, backstage at Saturday Night Live
1. Not unlike such melodramatic European specialties as the Transavantguardia and Robbie Williams, Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino makes a lot more sense in the moment than he does in immediate retrospect, and it becomes less and less plausible when certain tastemakers insist on forwarding him as a going concern. Sorrentino would be easy to set aside as a case of local product, slightly damaged in transit, were it not for the fact that Cannes put him so aggressively on the map. Starting with The Consequences of Love (2004), his second feature, the man has had five films in a row in concorso, a track record not many contemporary auteurs can match. (Part of this, we must acknowledge, has to do with Cannes politics, since unwritten rules indicate that an Italian film always needs to compete, barring a complete industry collapse.)
2. Until now, with his Oscar-nominated (and likely winning) The Great Beauty (2013), Sorrentino’s solid-gold status in the Euro-bubble hasn’t translated into North American box-office success. This could have something to do with differences in arthouse expectations, since Sorrentino almost—almost—appears to be drawing on Italy’s giallo tradition, bringing it in line with a sort of tony “artsploitation” mode that doesn’t compute elsewhere. The director’s early films do exhibit the elevated sleaze and genre strutting that Thierry Frémaux has taken a kind of quiet pride in smuggling into Cannes, but they are overly concerned with the display of technique and a winking awareness of “respectability.” The Consequences of Love is the sort of smug, overly art-directed, pseudo-existential gangster film that depicts numbness through repetition while juicing every shot so as to refrain from transmitting that numbness to the viewer. Formally speaking, it’s a film built like a panic attack, Sorrentino so apparently petrified of his audience lapsing into boredom or having a brief moment of reflection. So Toni Servillo’s Mafia bagman has his routines sliced and diced into hyper-montages. When he drives his fancy car, it actually becomes a car commercial. The film reimagines Antonioni circa The Passenger (1975) through the old cinéma du look moves of Besson and Beineix. The film was recently given its first New York release, to great acclaim.
3. Film #3, The Family Friend (2006), is a considerable improvement, partly because Sorrentino dives headlong into the filth, abandoning the fussy self-satisfaction of Consequences. Geremia De Geremei (Giacomo Rizzo), or “Geremia Heart-of-Gold,” is a tailor who doubles as a small-time Napoli loan shark, so miserly that he lives in squalor with his infirm mother even as he has hundreds of thousands to lend to young couples and elderly widows in failing health. Those around him repeatedly describe him as repulsive, although apart from being short and a bit lacking in appropriately bourgeois taste, Geremia is no more disgusting than all of them, which may or may not be Sorrentino’s point. He is, however, lacking in vanity, shuffling around with a plastic grocery bag and sometimes wearing potato slices on his head as a homeopathic migraine remedy. Eventually he turns rapist and blackmailer, which both confirms his revolting nature and complicates the film’s relationships between gender and class, something Sorrentino seems to not entirely notice. Still, there is a black-comic element here that makes the director’s usual exaggerated faux-Fellini moves and truncated tracking shots (zip-left-CUT-zip-right) feel less unctuous than desperate, the thwarted thrusts and parries of a ridiculous man.
4. The Family Friend, thematically if not formally, has much in common with Matteo Garrone’s The Embalmer (2002), a better and far more sympathetic film. In The Embalmer, a similarly “repulsive” man copes with repressed desires, but has no material power. Where Geremia infiltrates bourgeois society with filthy lucre, Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux), The Embalmer’s diminutive protagonist, can only proffer his knowledge through apprenticeship, which evolves into sexual exchange. In a way, Il Divo (2008) has certain things in common with Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008), in that both films are portraits of deep corruption within Italian politics and culture, with organized crime at the core. Whereas Garrone adapted Roberto Saviano’s book, using the Camorra syndicate as the central hub through which numerous stories and events are connected, Il Divo locates power in a central figure, the late Italian president Giulio Andreotti. Both films are left-wing cries of anguish from the high-dudgeon period of Berlusconi Part Three, attempts to assess How We Got Here, but from different angles. As a general rule, Garrone’s wide-angle social approach is almost always correct, since the great-man concept of history, the idea that power really is invested in the elected few, is a popular myth, something less and less convincing in a post-Foucauldian universe. At the same time, there is a core truth in Sorrentino’s carnivalesque treatment of Andreotti, his characterization of the Italian Reagan as a gnomic ghoul calmly wielding influence while macho henchmen bustle around him. Il Divo successfully articulates both a true image of the self-perpetuated cult of political might (“Power wears out those who don’t have it”) and displays the fundamental emptiness of the neoliberal politician, Andreotti’s function as an anchor-point for forces for which he is but a corporate hood ornament. Sorrentino’s hyperactive zoom and crane style fits Il Divo like a power suit, because it swirls around a void.
5. Il Divo remains Sorrentino’s finest film by a country mile, even as it was a calculated lurch toward respectability. It was also his first film to achieve (modest) distribution in North America, repped by Mongrel in Canada and Music Box in the US. It didn’t do very well; commentators chalked it up to the subject being “too specific” to Italian politics. But when it came time to make an “American movie,” the director maintained a fairly respectable balance between popular-sop mythologies and his usual big-time Euro-flailing. One step forward, one step back. So the fact that Sorrentino failed to make inroads in the US market with This Must Be the Place (2011), his English-language debut, hardly proves anything in itself. Still, the fact that it was a Sean Penn vehicle, with at least partial Weinstein distribution muscle behind it, makes its bellyflop a bit peculiar. Set largely in America, TMBTP is distinctly—I’d say self-consciously—reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ Yankee/Europudding road films, while at the same time maintaining the stylistic tics that define Sorrentino’s visual approach. For example, where the Wenders of Paris, Texas (1984) would adhere to the basic horizontality of the open road, Sorrentino likes to take a crane (or its digital equivalent) and go quite literally over the top of a scene, vertically swooping over the subject in the landscape, only to edit to another space and then swoop back the other way. Sometimes this is appropriate to the subject (for instance, the highlight of TMBTP is a complex staging of the title song at a David Byrne concert); usually it is irksome, an adolescent idea of the “virtuosic” which baptizes even the most intimate situations in a thick visual caramel of the carnivalesque.
6. For all of its awkwardness and trying too hard, This Must Be the Place is actually one of Sorrentino’s better films. It directly engages with its own silliness, and even the ostensibly weighty matters at which it picks, like a fussy eater, are dispatched with an insouciance bordering on refreshing bad taste. (Penn’s Cheyenne character is the child of a Holocaust survivor, but this becomes a looped-out Nazi-hunter plot with Judd Hirsch riding shotgun.) There’s a touch of Paris, Texas here, but it’s blended in a positive manner with the try-anything tone of late Wenders stumbles like Land of Plenty (2004), Don’t Come Knocking (2005), or even The Million Dollar Hotel (2000). Sorrentino’s directorial thinking is so aggressively stupid here that it really can’t miss, and Sean Penn as The Cure’s Robert Smith is a non-stop visual gag (see Cheyenne in the supermarket; see Cheyenne playing racquetball; see Cheyenne facing his demons). Nevertheless, the film is an interesting lark not just despite itself. Its narrative stall, its odd sense of digression and halted motility, provides a genuinely compelling analogue to the depression that grips the film’s major characters.
7. The same cannot be said of The Great Beauty. It is not surprising that this film has proven to be Sorrentino’s arthouse breakthrough, although it is disappointing. Granted, it is not as though This Must Be the Place is a lost masterwork, but The Great Beauty exemplifies not only the problems of Sorrentino’s style and approach, but a wrongheaded response to a broader crisis in late modern art cinema. This sounds like a rather grandiose condemnation of a single film, I know, but The Great Beauty is nothing if not a grandiose film. Told almost exclusively from the point of view of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), aging gadfly of Roman nightlife and one-time literary sensation, Sorrentino’s film operates on precisely two levels. It is a character study, which allows us to examine Jep’s milieu and his increasingly jaundiced relationship to it; and it is a “thesis film,” proposing that the physical history and aesthetic power of Rome is so overwhelming as to be paralyzing, a kind of Stendhal Syndrome in reverse. Rather than being awed, the Roman intelligentsia has become inured, almost incapable of meaningful creation.
8. Certainly Sorrentino’s own films would exemplify this latter thesis. And lest the reader think I’m just getting off a cheap shot, let me explain. The Great Beauty is being hailed as Sorrentino’s best film and one of the best films of the year by many writers and critics for whom I have a great deal of respect. It’s not that I do not see Sorrentino’s achievement. But what he has achieved is a kind of document of aesthetic incapacity, a tribute to cinema’s ability to move through spaces of grandeur while offering no sense of their coherence, providing no ground for material engagement—ultimately for turning Roman architectural and sculptural history into a set of empty signs.
9. Inasmuch as Jep is an unreliable narrator, someone whose ironic distance is presented as unenviable, we cannot simply conflate his shallow glance at existence with that of The Great Beauty, or Sorrentino. However, both film and filmmaker insulate Jep, keeping his smug irony protected. We never gain direct evidence of whether his sole novel, The Human Apparatus, is any good. But we see him laugh at the pretentious performance art of “Talia Concept” (Anita Kravos). We hear him deliver a scathing dressing-down to Marxist-feminist novelist Stefania (Galatea Ranzi), and then later ask to sleep with her. We see his publisher Romano (Carlo Verdone) finally mount his one-man show (which Jep doesn’t attend), but only after separating from his hateful, ball-busting girlfriend, who vainly claims to be an actress, writer, and director, with no clear proof. (The Great Beauty has little use for women, unless you’re an aging stripper, Mother Teresa, or a “dwarf.”)
10. The overriding message delivered by The Great Beauty is that artists are generally frauds; better to remain haughtily above the fray. Jep’s breakdowns, when they occur, are much more solipsistic. He weeps at the discovery that an old lover has died, although this seems to have as much to do with facing the foreclosure of his own youth as it does the old flame’s actual passing. And, in one of The Great Beauty’s most egregious instances of bad writing, Jep outlines proper social rules for funeral behaviour, including the importance of not crying, “so as not to steal the show from the family.” Then he immediately breaks down in tears in a highly public manner, another instance of someone else’s tragedy stirring feelings that strike a narcissistic chord. Again, it would be simplistic to say that Jep is Sorrentino’s stand-in, or that The Great Beauty expects its audience to adopt Jep’s viewpoint unproblematically. However, Sorrentino also fails to articulate any tenable position outside of Jep’s “enlightened false consciousness.” That is to say, 21st-century Roman culture is a brothel, but at least Jep knows it and has sold his soul to the shallowness of the bunga bunga long ago. Anyone else even attempting to carve out a place of authentic Being in this cesspool is deluded, a charlatan, or both.
11. Sorrentino’s formal gymnastics, honed to a kind of reductio ad absurdum here, emphasize a kind of dipsy-doodle kineticism that manages to turn all spatial gesture into a paradoxical flatness. Sorrentino has attracted admirers, I think in part, because he is one of the few prominent auteurs on the block to so aggressively abjure stately master-shot realism in favor of goofball mannerism. The cinema is a machine and its operators are under no obligation to faithfully reproduce the world, of course. It’s easy to forget that the extreme angles and rotating cinematography of Terry Gilliam or the Coen Brothers has connections to Jean Epstein’s arguments regarding photogénie and the manipulations of Maya Deren and Sidney Peterson. But if the form doesn’t follow the function then you’re just grinding the world into your own brand of sausage over and over again. Gilliam and the Coens can refrain—compare Brazil (1985) with Tideland (2005), or The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) with Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)—but Kusturica cannot, and generally speaking neither can Sorrentino. The Great Beauty is thrilling devotees and winning converts not by being the “best” Sorrentino film but by being the most Sorrentino film. The party scenes, of course, are slathered with exaggerated camera moves, fisheye gawking, rapid-fire editing, and a great deal of noise and flash. As so many have noted already, the filmmaker is doing his best Fellini impression, kicking out the jams with La Dolce Vita (1960) here, retreating into the “troubled male psyche” of 8 ½ (1963) there.
12. But even in its quietest moments, The Great Beauty flattens and glides across what could be actual historical surfaces. Sorrentino’s preferred motifs—giant classical porticos, echoing with a highly artificial (Antonionian) emptiness; busts and statuary dominating the foreground of the wide screen like a postage stamp, to ironically offset some debauched goings-on—seem, on the surface, to drip with an undergraduate’s sense of the visual. They virtually throttle the viewer with their whiz-bang excitement about what big cameras, cranes, and dollies can do. But look closer, and these are very stodgy, literary manoeuvres, the overweening symbolic Bible-thumps of the novelist-turned-filmmaker. This is not to say that Sorrentino has no cinematic aptitude, but The Great Beauty fails so egregiously because it finds the man punching so far above his weight. Not only is Sean Penn in a fright wig much more his speed, it is a conceit that can locate in its very clownishness precisely the pathos Sorrentino was after in the first place.
13. The Great Beauty is textbook postmodernism: it apes Fellini in order to both display and discourse upon the implausibility of modernism’s basic commitments. Where Fellini could be simultaneously seduced and repulsed by the shallowness of fame and the jet-set, Sorrentino sees no other possibility. His hollow man Jep is finally moved by art only when witnessing an installation of photographs by an artist who has made identically formatted self-portraits every day of his life—narcissism combined with modular redundancy. Much in the same way that his contemporary Luca Guadagnino “occupied” Visconti in his equally hollow I Am Love (2009), Sorrentino is beyond even critiquing modernism. Neither filmmaker is particularly interested in slaying the fathers, nor is he truly committed to systematic homage. High modernism becomes an accoutrement, something to blandish like a name brand.
14. After all, if Sorrentino’s caffeinated cinematic mode represented a concerted effort to abandon Bazinian shibboleths old and new, The Great Beauty would probably not conclude with a single seven-minute take through the Roman canals, a slow drift under the bridges of History and Romance. Granted, this is during the ending credits, and the filmmaker may intend for the shot to serve as pretty visual Muzak while the audience returns to their cars. Nevertheless, there’s nothing ironic about this lazy-river drift shot, but it’s hardly extraordinary. It shows no real commitment, even as it actively contravenes Sorrentino’s entire aesthetic program. It sums up the Jep Gambardella attitude, perhaps hitting on an accidental beauty, but making sure to signal a kind of flouncing apathy. You, the looker, are the invested one. Or not. It’s cool either way.
15. The overvaluation of Paolo Sorrentino is understandable. Italian cinema has been in a decades-long doldrums. It’s often difficult to comprehend Cahiers’ enthusiasm for Nanni Moretti, but it becomes a bit easier when one considers that the Italian directors dominating the world stage during the ’80s and ’90s were people like Ettore Scola, Giuseppe Tornatore, and Liliana Cavani. Throw in highly inconsistent efforts by old masters (Bertolucci, Rosi, the Tavianis…Bellocchio was the closest thing to money in the bank), and you get a sense of just how bleak it’s been for the industry. Those few signs of life visible through the ’90s and ’00s (Ciprì and Maresco, Paolo Benvenuti) have tended to be overlooked by the likes of Cannes, with Venice batting clean-up where it could. To be fair, many of Sorrentino’s peers who kept the neorealist faith (Saverio Costanzo, Vincenzo Marra, Emanuele Crialese) have enjoyed careers mostly because their stodgy respectability has counterbalanced the middlebrow bloat of so much else in Italian art cinema. (If Pupi Avati is your problem, Daniele Luchetti isn’t going to seem so bad.) The sheer fact of Sorrentino’s wild expressionism no doubt seemed like a breath of fresh air in the early to mid-’00s, when “the poetry of the streets” had calcified into drab punctiliousness. There were other options, of course: the Jarmanesque eye and ear control of Pietro Marcello (La bocca del lupo, 2009); the philosophical long-view of Michelangelo Frammartino (Le Quattro Volte, 2010); or even the small bourgeois chamberworks of Silvio Soldini (Bread and Tulips, 2000; Days and Clouds, 2007). But of course the grand gesture tends to trump subtlety.
16. Sorrentino has had ample opportunity to make good on his modest gifts. Like so many mannerists, he is well suited to satire and the grotesque, but with The Great Beauty he has created an inflatable white elephant, a film teeming with grandeur and flourish in the manner of a third-rate stage magician attempting misdirection. It didn’t have to be this way. I recently caught up with Sorrentino’s debut film, One Man Up (2001), a modest, goofy little effort that shows some of the beginnings of the wild style but is mostly content to spin a preposterous yarn. It moves back and forth between two contemporary stories: Tony Pisapia (yes, Servillo) is a famous Wayne Newton-type lounge singer whose career is tanked by a sex scandal; Antonio Pisapia (Andrea Renzi) is another famous man with the same name, a well-respected footballer felled too young by an injury. Until very late in the film, there are no connections between the two Antonios, aside from the shared name (upon which no one remarks). They seem to be cosmically linked, however, and their individual tales of woe form a neatly contrapuntal black comedy. This is a middling but diverting film. There’s nothing here to indicate a five-time Cannes attendee; One Man Up is the sort of filler film that Toronto uses to stuff the Contemporary World Cinema program, a film that festivalgoers see to kill time. It’s the work of a medium talent, and it’s fine. Had Paolo Sorrentino continued in this promising vein, he might have taken his place alongside other such lightweights as Julio Medem, Cédric Klapisch, and Ventura Pons.