Andre Breton’s Nadja ends on the note that, “Beauty is like a train that ceaselessly roars out of the Gare de Lyon and which I know will never leave, which has not left. It consists of jolts and shocks, many of which do not have importance, but which we now are destined to produce Shock, which does….Beauty must be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” And for provocative and acclaimed Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, his films exist a realm of sublime beauty, always amalgamating the absurd with the exquisite.
Filled with striking cinematography and grandiose imagery that heightens everyday existence and existential quandaries into matters of personal faith, his work exposes a universal truth lying in his subjects. Whether he’s taking us on a perfectly scored journey through the vast open roads of the American landscape or through the hallowed halls and lamp lit streets of Rome, there’s a distinctly fantastic thrill, haunting charm, and absolute pleasure evoked from his sense of cinema.
And with his latest feature—both his personal best and one of my favorite films of the year—Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is as ambitious as it is stunning. Starring the always captivating Toni Servillo—with a look that may be familiar but a freshness that enthralls—he and Sorrentino takes us into the world of Jep Gambardella (Servillo), a writer who has been drifting through a lavish lifestyle of parties and empty experiences since the success of his first and only novel. Examining the dichotomy between the history lingering in Rome’s landscape and psyche and the hollow artifice of modernity’s ephemeral charms, The Great Beauty studies Jep’s life as a “grand indictment of a man, and a society, that has lost its way.”
With an strange and oft grotesque hand—but one that’s always full of wonder—Sorrentino explores how we deal with love and loss, life and death, and the questions we must ask ourselves to give our existence meaning. “The great attraction of human beings, is that this beauty manifests itself in fleeting moments and thunders,” Sorrentino told me. “Exterior beauty is ephemeral, it comes and goes.” And it’s that sentiment which lingers throughout The Great Beauty,giving us a keen observation into the soul of both Jep and the Italy he strolls through night after night.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sorrentino at the Criterion Collection offices to discuss mixing the sacred and the profane, defining the character of Jep, and finding the beauty in imprecision.
The first thing that struck me about this film, and something that strikes me about all your work really, is how the camera moves. It glides like a wind and with a gentleness that allows moments to be revealed rather than simply shown. Is there a reason you’re drawn to this particular camera style?
I think that moving the camera constantly is a way for you to try and reveal mystery—to solve mysteries. So, you see, it’s a way for the camera to search and to get to the place in which mysteries are unfolded. That’s why I chose this particular style.
There’s a great contradiction in the film, and it seems for Rome in general, between the sheen of modernity and hallowed lingering history. It’s evident in the architecture and the physical space, but also in the people and their spirit and psyche.
Rome has always been this mixture of the sacred and the profane. It is able to have these two elements coexist, and it has done so for ever and ever. This is the seed of the Vatican and it is the seed is Italian political power. And therefore, it is a place where all the ambitions of Italians could exist and come together. There is a profane element there, which is the seed of all the most corrupt and frivolous ambitions of Italians. So, it’s a city that’s always been characterized by, what I would label, as an indolent balance or equilibrium.
Is that something you wanted to be echoed in the character of Jep? Someone who is a part of this frivolous, high-society world yet also have this strong yearning to be rooted in something more real and substantial that has meaning. He speaks so frequently about giving your life meaning and what it means to have a life void of that, yet he spends his time in this material, fleeting world.
Yes, I think it happens to us all. One needs truth and meaning in life. In situations like those parties, where the social imperative seems to be for one to let go, humans being in those situations starting asking themselves what truly matters and what is truth. And then they start striving for that. So whenever the social imperative seems to be that one has to let go, it is indeed in those moments that one tries to escape from this and not let go. This demand for description seems to weigh like a huge stone on you.
Death is an ever-present force in the film.Was Jep’s wasting of his talent and idyll spending of his time something that stemmed from a fear of stillness, as if if he were to slow down he’d be susceptible to his own decay?
No, it is not a fear of death as such. It is not even a fear at all. Rather, it is a modus vivendi, a way of life for him.
You’ve worked with Toni before and in this he is just so fantastic and perfectly the embodiment of this character. How did you two work together to develop Jep from the inside out?
This is a character that is based on several people in our city of origin—both Toni and I come from Naples. It was easy for us to identify or focus on this kind of character, even though it was difficult for Toni to actually pull him off as an actor. But to define him and flesh hi out, it was easy. Also, it is a character that owes a lot to several literary figures, ones which are always described as the provincial man who comes to the big city or the capital and tackles a new life and a new world with a level of cynicism and disenchantment as a way to deal with this world that is so different and so big. So that is what animated this character of Jep.
He’s surrounded by conventional beauty and a manufactured attractiveness, but it was finding the wonder and the exquisiteness in the mundane and the hidden splendor that lies in the un-obvious that inspired him to go back to his roots. Was that something you wanted to explore, that the most beautiful things are what’s covered and how one discovers them and how they not only appeal but how they live in us?
Yes, yes you’re totally right. I believe that the beauty in places is evident—however, in people it is a lot more hidden. The great attraction of human beings, is that this beauty manifests itself in fleeting moments and thunders. Exterior beauty is ephemeral, it comes and goes. But true beauty is connected to other feelings, such as joy and tenderness. These are feelings that have nothing to do with exterior appearances, and are hidden deeper inside things and people.
You have a wonderful talent for soundtracking a film, which we’ve seen throughout all your work. With the music forThe Great Beauty did you want the music to mirror that mix of excess and modernity with the spiritual and revered?
Yes, the music had t be a mix between the sacred and profane. That is where the contraposition is, rather than new and old.
I love how your films present the exquisite and the grotesque in the same light, showing the beauty in what’s broken whose eeriness you cannot help but be seduced by.
For me, beauty stands in the imprecisions or the lack of precision of people and things. So yes, you are right.
By Hillary Weston , November 14, 2013