“The life of a director is his films. Not all his life, of course, but that part of it through which he expressed his relationship with the world, with ideas and with men” (Francesco Rosi)
By Pietro Cesaro
“Beauty will save the World”, Dostoevskij once said. And Paolo Sorrentino some years ago tried to save Italian cinema with his masterpiece: The Great Beauty. I have always wondered, given the plot of the movie, what the director was thinking when he decided the title of the movie. What is the great beauty? Does it represent the wonderful contrast between what’s sacred and what’s profane? Or the Caravaggesque light and shade one can enjoy throughout the movie, as symbol of the contrasting nature of Roman society? Or is it maybe the eternal and unforgettable monologue by Toni Servillo about the inconsistencies of human relationships?
Loneliness and melancholy
We are not supposed to know, but the Italian film director once alluded to the importance of his wife and children, as family allows you to regain the lost balance and to ward off the disease of loneliness. Sorrentino lost his parents in a car accident when he was very young, and he felt lonely during the entire youth. I guess he further developed awareness of his capabilities and of the wide range of emotions that a human being can comprehend during the events of a lifetime. He started thinking about the theatrical arts when he first watched “Nuovo Cinema Paradiso”, by Tornatore. Thus, he decided to drop Economics at university. The cultural scene in Naples was flourishing at the time, thanks to inspiring people like Antonio Capuano, leading to an abundance of possibilities of purposing new cultural and artistic projects.
Melancholy is a supporting theme throughout his interviews and movies. A veil of spleen and sadness pervades all his artistic works, eliciting a bitter laughter. Sorrentino is relatively young and has already won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2014. I reckon that this is also due to the fact he was alone, drawing on those sad and lonely moments to perfect his art. He understood the dichotomy of a life that cannot always be satisfying.
In an interview he defines melancholy as an engine for creativity. Once you are able to be proactive in creating a work of art, you can challenge its existential emptiness, as Woody Allen once said in his search of a meaning in this universe. But are there other ways to find sense? Or ways to counteract its absence? Sorrentino has another answer: irony. If you are not a film director, irony is the key to get through all the struggles we come by. This approach is very Italian, very Neapolitan. Not for nothing, Naples is the only city that has the translation of the Portuguese word Saudade, which represents a nostalgic feeling for wondrous moments, for home, for everything that made us feel good. The Appocundria is a dialect term to define this strong sensation. In Naples they know how to be happy and cry properly. So they found a way to translate a word generated by a population that has been always distant from home.
The Great Beauty and imagination
Sometimes, in Italy Sorrentino is attacked for his filming style. In “The Great Beauty”, the true soul of Rome is never taken into consideration, as he depicts a dreamlike capital where the suburbs are non-existent. But this is cinematography. This is art. A movie should not always describe reality and does not need a plot if it speaks to you through different sensorial spheres.
The mundane feasts he describes are not completely real, the characters sometimes represent just a feeling brought till its paroxysm. Debussy wrote exotic music by just dreaming about travelling faraway, and Salgari wrote novels set in places he never visited; Sorrentino is not fond of parties. He just saw these kind of feasts few times and he just described them in his own way. He thinks that a movie must have internal coherence, nothing more. Federico Fellini was telling the reality in his movies without documenting himself about it, but just by imagining it. Sorrentino loves emotional shades, human contradictions, and the characters are often just a projection of his mind. His Pope, a wonderful Jude Law in the TV series “The Young Pope”, is crazy about his appearance and full of vanity projected in his confusing crisis of faith. However, in one episode he makes a speech, heartwarming for its goodness and kindness, as it seems a prayer from a medieval saint.
Cinema as the language of feelings
We are at the same time way more than what we think. Opposite feelings that mix themselves and barely touch coherence. Sorrentino is very aware of the contradictions of mind, so he renewed the language through which a film can touch us: not only through a catchy plot, good photography, amazing direction and spectacular actors, but also through the culmination of images, intuitions, emotions, gestures, miracles and atavistic visions. His books are less known than his movies, but he is a great writer too. He thinks that a normal story cannot be told, and in every sentence of his books there is a quote. His storytelling is sneering and sarcastic, but in the middle of a phrase you can find his meditation about death, God and old age. This alternation of linguistic and thematic patterns is simply amazing, because he is able to describe the whole human existence with a handful of sentences.
In this enormous and weird world, he can be thankful to those people that made him feel less lonely, such as the Talking Heads, Maradona, Fellini, and Scorsese. He thanked them after winning the Oscar, as they have been his source of inspiration. The speech is kind of awkward, because he is very Neapolitan, so he did not prepare what to say as a sign of good luck. But he remarked that he is not superstitious, after having heard that being superstitious brings bad luck.
This is Sorrentino, looking at his family to find answers. Because maybe, to difficult questions, there are simple answers.