Sunday, February 23, 2014

High Life

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is the favourite to win this year’s foreign language film Oscar, and as many have mentioned, such an award would be a happy throwback to the days when the mega-auteur Fellini was a frequent contender and winner (he took it home four times). The film places us in the world of Jep Gambardella, a journalist and long-ago novelist who lives in the heart of Rome (in a gorgeous apartment overlooking the Colosseum), even in his mid-sixties still getting up in the afternoon and partying until dawn (it’s unclear how he funds his lifestyle, as he seems to work very little). It’s a dazzling life, filled with heightened experiences and encounters, and an abundance of sex, in one of the world’s most privileged and overwhelming settings; at the same time, it’s the same places, same people, same variations on what he’s been doing for decades, while the possibilities for greater achievements fall away.

The Great Beauty

There’s a lot of death in the film, literally and figuratively, but then there’s a lot of everything in it – it runs nearly two and a half hours (and on this occasion it’s hard to leave during the closing credits too), and it would take nearly that long to disentangle everything Sorrentino crams in there. Sometimes, he embraces the whip-cracking ringmaster tradition, opening up the city’s secret places, orchestrating frenzied parties with copious side orders of debauchery, plopping down giraffes and flamingoes, staging absurd conceptual art pieces, and peppering his cast with extremely short or extremely old people, or befuddled representatives of the cloth. At several points, Jep evokes the concept of writing a novel about nothing, whereby Sorrentino tempts the audience to label his film as such while actually making it a richer and more tangible something than any other work you’re likely to encounter.

But, as in Fellini films like La Strada and 8 ½, there’s also the gorgeously outfitted boredom of it all, the existential angst, pivoting here on the magnificently resonant actor Toni Servillo, with his inherent ability to project depths and unexpressed calculations. The character is an unashamed artificiality – I can imagine lots of people watching the film and finding no way into it, and Sorrentino virtually dares us to judge him an elitist, even condescending filmmaker. At one point, Jep visits the widowed husband of an old girlfriend, finding him now happy with a new woman (pointedly depicted as the kind of woman Jep himself never encounters), with no plans for the evening other than to iron, have a glass of wine and watch TV. With measured passive-aggressiveness (there’s a lot of that in the film too) Jep describes how in contrast he’ll be spending the night in controlled revellment, going to bed when they’re getting up. It’s the contrast between a large, visible life and a small one, but begging the question of which best serves underlying needs (Jep’s only there in the first place because of unresolved anxiety about the dead woman). One of Jep’s friends, one of the sadder characters in recent cinema, ends up essentially writing off forty years of his life in Rome as a misconceived disappointment.

The Great Trick

Time and again in The Great Beauty, Sorrentino arrives at something that might be the thematic or emotional high point of a lesser film, only to move on. He presents the death of one major character so subtly, almost subliminally, that you might literally blink and miss it; the film teems with glimpses down other roads it might have followed. After a couple of hours or so, I actually thought it was over, only to have it crank up again with one of its most brilliant sustained strands, involving a visiting Mother Theresa-type and the surrounding hoopla (the actual ending, when it arrives, is satisfying, but doesn’t by any means embody classic narrative closure). The film shows up the claustrophobic calculations of a film like Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, which I wrote about last week; Sorrentino elevates every scene with some elegance of camera movement or dialogue, or human mystery. Of course, it’s a performance (“a trick,” in the words of the film), as much as that of the magician who says he’ll make the giraffe disappear. There’s not enough room in the cultural world for that many films like this. Maybe it’s a miracle there’s even enough room for one.

Sorrentino’s auteur status, insofar as such a thing is available now, has been steadily building for a decade. He’s probably previously best known in this country for his 2008 Il Divo, a study of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. It’s not the best introduction to him though, at least not for those who, like me, have only a vague knowledge of post-war Italian politics (as in, it’s really dysfunctional, and a lot of people got blown up) – even the opening explanatory screen-scroll is barely penetrable. Still, it’s an interesting, silkily menacing portrait of advanced inscrutability (we see Andreotti rip a page out of a mystery novel because he doesn’t want to know the killer). A better starting point might be his earlier The Consequences of Love, possibly the least likely film one can imagine having that title. Yet another portrait of a human enigma (both this and Il Divo also starred Servillo), it seems for a long while like a collection of elements that can’t possibly be explained, until Sorrentino immaculately does exactly that (albeit with some recourse to melodramatic extremity). 

This Must be the Place

More recently, he made the English language This Must be the Place, starring Sean Penn as a reclusive rock singer living in Ireland, who embarks on a very strange trip across America. The film was barely seen here, but it’s another fascinating exercise in creating a character and situation lying outside any familiar reference point, while somehow remaining coherent. Views might differ on how well Sorrentino succeeded on the latter point, but it’s a fascinating performance by actor and director alike (it seems right here to apply the term to both): the title speaks to a desire for anchoring and closure, but the film itself is a constant exercise in displacement and in the fusion of extremes. Characteristically of Sorrentino’s work, I could attempt to describe it here in great detail while still failing entirely to convey what you should actually expect to see.

In the end, The Great Beauty may be at its core an elevated expression of the same human mess we’ve seen many times before – it has some similarities to Wolf of Wall Street for instance. But the magic is in the elevation.

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