Paolo Sorrentino talks ‘The Great Beauty’
At a press screening of The Great Beauty, the film’s director Paolo Sorrentino introduced his film by saying exactly how I feel about everything in life: “It’s a movie about so many things that, in the end, it’s a movie about nothing.”
I was immediately engaged. The film has been compared to the end-all masterpiece, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita both in structure and in content; and there’s good reason for the comparison. The two share a very similar concept: a journalist living in Rome spends his leisurely existence in an aimless, corrupt, glitzy world of nothingness and through his observations, you distinguish the absurdity of it all, coming to the conclusion that most of it is all but a front and there’s something else at the core. You’re just supposed to find it.
That’s a film I could watch over and over again but luckily I don’t have to because now I can alternate between The Great Beauty and La Dolce Vita and be entirely satisfied on either side. The film is beautifully shot. The meandering, meditative reflectiveness of his earlier work (This Must Be The Place is notable for these attempts but fell flat in execution) combines with his distinctively stylish cinematography and general aesthetic for what turns out to be a major success. It’s the perfect marriage of the two extremes, between which Sorrentino has previously fluctuated. This film though, hits home.
Perfectly cast Toni Servillo (also a longtime collaborator) stars in the comically contemplative film. Both quotable (I have pages of memorable lines), and visually louche, the two and a half hour film is rich, funny, warm, heartfelt, and offers the one thing La Dolce Vita didn’t: a solution. It only has a more concrete ending than (what I hesitate to call) its predecessor, but also a direction. While Sorrentino has repeatedly dissuaded journalists from comparing his work to Fellini’s invariable masterpiece, the film does come arguably close. I sat down with him to discuss how The Great Beauty came into being, why DJing is a bit like directing, how funny we both are and how funny life is- a topic ultimately covered in the movie. As the lead character Jep so perfectly outlines, “It’s all just a trick.”
Fellini and Goddard both started off as film writers before making a transition to directing. I was curious as to what your own history was before you started directing.
I have nothing to do with journalism myself, except that I married a journalist. I’ve always loved writing and I wanted to be a writer initially but I thought it was too difficult so I started off being a screenwriter because I thought that could be easier to pull off. I worked a lot as a screenwriter and after a while I realized that being just a screenwriter could be too tiring or too hard, so I thought it could be fun or beautiful to be a filmmaker as well. so that’s how I became one; I started off with writing.
What was your relationship like with (your co-writer) Umberto Contarello? How did you begin working with him?
I met him when I was a young man just starting off and he was already an established screenwriter. I was his kid: his slave, his apprentice, but then–later on–when I started making movies, I wrote for myself for a while. But I always regarded him as my master, as my teacher. So when I became more well known, I wrote the first few movies together with him because we share the same passions and viewpoints on filmmaking but also on people in general. We have a lot in common.
I always wondered how you would approach writing a script like The Great Beauty, or like La Dolce Vita, because it’s such a roaming narrative. It’s so dialogue-centric and doesn’t follow a traditional structure. Did you have an approach to that or did you just dive in?
I had everything already fleshed out from the start. For me, it’s easier to write a film like this–which is apparently all over the place–than it is to follow a traditional linear plot with surprises and twists. For me, that is extremely boring. So it’s harder for me to do something like that. This comes off easy.
I wanted to ask you about the implications of the title, The Great Beauty.
The title is based on a categorical imperative that the film has. Finding beauty is everywhere and since beauty is everywhere, [beauty] becomes great.
Lele Marchitelli is the composer of this film. Had you worked with him before?
No. In this case, it was the first time I’d worked with the composer, but he’s been a friend of mine for many years. In this movie there aren’t many original songs and most of the music is repertoire. But then I listened to this music that he does and I usually don’t do this, but I say to the composer: “Give me all the music that you’ve ever done in your life”. I listen to it and I choose. It’s better.
I was at the screening last night and you said that you like to “DJ the movie”. You said that music was your favorite part and that making a film is so much about bringing the feeling of music to life and giving it color and depth and engaging with that and, actually, I DJ also. . .
You are a DJ also.
Sometimes. So I completely understood that because I often feel that I wish I could give the vibrancy of the song a motion and vision so I get that feeling. I think it’s great. The film was incredibly successful.
Thank you very much.
Well, thank you for making a movie.
You’re funny. You’re a funny woman.
You’re a funny man! Actually, this is a funny job.
Paolo Sorrentino, director of The Great Beauty.
The Great Beauty has already joined the Foreign Oscar race and hits theaters November 15, 2013.