I first discovered the films of Paolo Sorrentino in university, when I watched his most famous work, The Great Beauty (In Italian, La Grande Bellezza).
The film begins in Rome, with the protagonist Jep Gambardella at his birthday party. The party is a spectacle of dance and depravity, a joyous celebration of a man that has reached his prime of middle age.
But even as he celebrates, Jep is less content than he appears. In his youth, he wrote a famous novel, but he has written nothing since. His life has been placed on hold: a constant state of lounging and partying, attending live art performances and religious worship. His apartment overlooks the Colosseum, and he too, is trapped in looking back at the past.
In his heart, Jep is pining to return to the glory days of his youth. Where in Rome as a young man he first fell in love and discovered the great beauty.
But he can’t find such beauty again. Everywhere he looks, he finds only himself looking back at him, a mirror of the ego. Even when he has sex, he is absent, a disembodied observer to the affair.
The film is a chronicle of nostalgia: what it means to get so caught up in the thrall, in the grip of the deep past, unwilling to let go, and what it means to eventually find beauty and purpose in the present.
In the crucial line of the film, Jep lays out his core philosophy, the nihilistic search for beauty and truth:
This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. It’s all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world, blah, blah, blah… Beyond there is what lies beyond. I don’t deal with what lies beyond. Therefore… let this novel begin. After all… it’s just a trick. Yes, it’s just a trick.
I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about Sorrentino’s films, and what they mean to me. Yesterday, I watched his semi-autobiographical work, The Hand of God, and I’ve previously seen Youth and Il Divo.
In each case, Sorrentino captures the intangible parts of life and makes them real: from lost beauty and young love to the love of family, the love of nation and the withering of old age.
Through Sorrentino, I have learnt to care about the small moments, the absurdities, and the sublime.
This is the world according to Paolo Sorrentino.
Sorrentino has a beautiful sense of imagery and visual language. His films are filled with rich scenery; the streets of Rome or Naples, ancient statues, the worn-out leathery skin of a living Saint, the fragile smooth skin of youth. Each have their place in his tapestry he builds of what makes up a life.
And how we need to stop and pay attention to it.
Santa: Why did you never write another book?
Jep Gambardella: I was looking for the great beauty, but, I didn’t find it.
If there is a signature in Sorrentino’s work, it is his clever use of symbols, or thematic calling cards. In the Hand of God, the protagonist, a young man, is finding his place in the world with his aging parents. The parents have a whistling sound they make to symbolize their long love; the mother juggles oranges repeatedly in the film, as if to designate a break in the three-act structure; and a mysterious young monk appears and disappears at moments of birth and divergence.
The symbols change in new contexts. The mother first juggles as a party trick, and later, juggles while crying, as a kind of desperate clinging on to something real and familiar. The repetition creates plot coherence, in what otherwise would be a plotless film. But it also lifts each symbolic act to a higher significance and purpose. We need to see things multiple times, from multiple angles, Sorrentino seems to suggest, in order to understand what they ultimately mean.
In The Great Beauty, the protagonist attends numerous modern art spectacles at different points in the film; with live performers throwing paint on blank canvases, with a growing rage and ferocity. At one point, a woman beats herself up against an ancient bridge. The modern art seems to mean nothing, but it is important to be there, to witness this nothing coming into existence.
The trains at our parties are the best in Rome. They’re the best ’cause they go nowhere.
Jep cannot escape from the superficial, fragile lives of his wealthy friends. At one point he demolishes one of them:
Stefania, mother and woman. You’re 53, with a life in tatters, like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little. Don’t you agree?
But in saying so, he is ultimately demolishing himself. He too is trapped in this vapidity, this performance, this spectacle. There is no way out but through. To overcome the superficiality, he must bear witness to it, contrast it to his past, find a way to make it mean something, find a way to get through it to the other side. Only then, can he find beauty once more.
In Youth, Sorrentino takes this theme of longing further. The story is of two old men, Fred Ballinger and Mick Boyle, visiting a remote resort in the alps. Fred is a retired composer of classical music; at the hotel, he is approached by an emissary for Queen Elizabeth II, conferring a knighthood. Mick is a film director and is working with a group of writers to develop the screenplay for his latest film, which he calls his “testament”. Both men are surrounded by the beauties and absurdities of youth. In the resort are Miss Universe, along with an aging diva and young male hippie. Fred’s daughter appears and falls for a young man.
The two men take different approaches to growing older. The first runs from growing older, refusing to write his autobiography. The second embraces it. The synthesis is the realization that neither running nor embracing old age will change the reality that they both face: of lost youth and opportunity. It is this that must be confronted. The perfect, unwrinkled skin. The clean lines. The sensation of vibrancy, energy and bounce of the young. Things that they will never have again.
Sorrentino does many things in his films, but principally he tries to evoke a sense of fading of time and place. It is now that we have. Now, and then. All that was and all that is now. He focuses our attention on the core of life: our relationships, our explorations and our discovery of beauty.
Critics say that his films are sometimes slow or too meandering. But then the critics do not understand that this is life. Life is slow and meandering, it is the journey to finding something, it is not neatly demarcated by milestones or convenient plot points. It is the complex and the absurd, the mundane and the magnificent, the young and old, ugly and beautiful. This is life. And this is what Sorrentino is grappling with. He is not interested in the distractions that we give ourselves. The lies we tell to make ourselves feel young or important. No. He is concerned with reality, a reality he desperately wants us to look at, and consider.
A thriller may have us on the edge of our seats; a Sorrentino film confronts us with why we are seated to begin with.
In The Hand of God, his major semi-autobiographical work, the young protagonist seeks to become a filmmaker. At the critical juncture of the film, he meets a famous Naples filmmaker, who is, in many ways, an embodiment of who Sorrentino is now. Here is the old man talking to his younger, idealistic self. The director and the protégée.
The young man in the film says that he is struggling with something. The old director replies:
“So, do you have something to say? Do you have a story to tell? Spit it out then.”
In telling his own story, Sorrentino lets us reflect on life. The miseries and opportunities, and what it means to be creative and alive. In doing so, he gives us a freedom his characters never seem to have: the ability to escape from our life and contemplate on true beauty.
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