Tag Archives: Paolo Sorrentino

Economic Measures #5 | Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty (2013)

Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.

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By Michael Pattison

Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, in cinemas now, is a mysterious beast of thematic ambition, formal precision and tonal complexity. Seeing it twice recently, I wondered if it might be the first film since There Will Be Blood (2007) or The Master (2012) to feel of a different period altogether. Whether that period’s in the past or in the future is difficult to say. To be sure, the Italian maverick’s latest – a flawed masterpiece that boasts the conviction of its own capacity to fail – seems to be unfathomably old-fashioned at the same time as being unfashionably ahead of its time.

Even as it drifts off in its third act, its energy zapped by a curious dream sequence (or is it?) involving big-titted dames paying exorbitant amounts for their latest botox injections, the film reeks of purpose and energy and old-school arthouse class. In discussing its multitude of problems, I’ve fallen in love with it: it satisfies my present need for excitement, for a youthful spirit, for a more lyrical and instinctive appreciation of things, for doing something when everything else about a situation (notably budget and common sense) seem to deny it. To quote a member of a message board I used to moderate, “I’d rather see an interesting failure than a dull success.”

Similar to that curious and temporary inability as an adolescent to recall a crush’s face, I was aware going into my second viewing of The Great Beauty that it has a prologue, and yet had forgotten exactly how it felt, what it looked like and what happened in it. As became immediately clear again, it’s a dizzying yet logical succession of wonderfully choreographed pans and tracks, their movement and sweep lending intrigue to a three-fold incident in which a female choir, a group of tourists and an amateur photographer are drawn together when the latter falls down dead.

I still don’t know its significance (“the tourists are the best thing about Rome”?), but the Hitchcock-like scream that concludes this sequence, ushering in a rooftop party scene to the tune of ‘Far L’Amore’ by Bob Sinclar and Raffaela Carrà, brought an immediate and sustained bout of shivers. The subsequent sequence, a superlatively edited and infectiously energetic passage in which Felliniesque grotesques drink and dance the night away, provides us with the most hedonistically pleasurable few moments in film this year.

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Down to it, then. Toni Servillo, already one of my favourite working actors, anchors this film with airs that are as elusive as his face is memorable. The man is 54, and without looking older than his years, he exudes an experience and even weariness that transcend them. Such experience comes to haunt the narrative just as much as it brings that opening party to life. In a key scene in which he berates a female writer for pretensions of superiority, Servillo’s protagonist betrays his own weaknesses: lazy, fond of one too many drinks, perhaps even beyond repair, and – tragically – aware of such vices. At several points, this host with the most has his otherwise assured façade shattered by the presence of an aloof neighbour to whom he aspires like a pathetic protégé.

Is there anyone who nails silencio e sentimento with such effortless charm, gravitas and vulnerability as Servillo? Who else can command the screen by doing so little as lying inert in a hammock? During both viewings of his latest collaboration with Sorrentino, I have longed for those scenes in which he gave Gomorrah (2008) much-needed purpose, and have also lamented the lack of theatrical distribution for It Was the Son (2012), in which he complemented the film’s caricature qualities by channelling the higher melodrama of a Pietro Germi film.

Like all the best film entrances (Welles’ in Kane, Kinski’s in Aguirre, the Marx Brothers’ in Duck Soup), Servillo’s in The Great Beauty is delayed. The party scene announces itself and introduces several characters in delirious succession, as if the camera is circling the vicinity looking to recruit a protagonist who can command it. Exhilaratingly – mirroring the structure of the Sinclar and Carrà dance mix that churns beneath – the scene seems to end at several points, or at least ventures into a quieter part of the shindig to eavesdrop on more private moments. Just when you think the scene has ended, it goes back to the heart of the party. Like some hideous homage to Kathy Selden, a woman shoots up from a giant cake and shouts “Happy Birthday, Jep!”

Cut to Servillo, for the first time, who shimmies 180 degrees to break the fourth wall, cigarette in mouth and a smile etched upon his wondrously craggy face. He is Jep Gamdardella. The gesture is aided by everything else that Sorrentino throws at us, of course, but Servillo, in this simple, declarative introduction, shows us that the film is his from here on out. That it’ll be his even when other characters threaten to steal it from him, when its tone shifts from exuberant to melancholic and back again, even when its director intrudes upon proceedings by viewing them from an upside-down angle. When the scene concludes with a collective dance-off between the genders, note Servillo’s ability to be in sync with a crowd and stand out from it in the same moment. And the involuntary movement merely of his fingers while dancing says more than Mastroianni ever did.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

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This Must Be The Place

Of his new film, This Must Be The Place, director Paolo Sorrentino declares; “I think that a story only truly comes alive when there’s a danger of failing”, and then falters,  “…I hope I haven’t failed.”

He hasn’t failed, but only just – he’s certainly flirted with it.

Cheyenne, an aged American rocker now living on royalties in Dublin shuffles aimlessly around shopping malls, springing to life only during a game of pelota with his wife in his disused swimming pool, or to play the awkward host at a dinner party for a motley crew of guests. Outside the comfort of his home, accompanied by his wheeled caddy and occasionally Mary, a young Goth, or Jeffrey, his lewd stockbroker, Cheyenne – deeply depressed or deeply bored – muffles his way through his middle age with the same miserablist tones that one imagines constituted the music of his heyday.

Then, a phone call; his father is dying. He returns to New York, and – spurred on by his father’s (surprisingly) Jewish family – he embarks upon a soft-spoken, slow, shuffling schlep of a Nazi hunt, his faithful wheeled caddy transformed into a suitcase with wheels that accompanies him in search of the prison guard who once humiliated his father during the war.

Sean Penn as Cheyenne is extremely striking. His Ed Scissorhands-esque mop of black hair, makeup and fur-lined hoodie perfectly embody the awkwardness of his displacement. He melds Johnny Depp’s camp cautiousness with hints of the physicality of his previous portrayal of slain San Francisco politician/gay rights activist Harvey Milk. He’s boyish, but old. Small, but imposing. Modelled on The Cure front man Robert Smith, Penn garbed in goth is a faded and smeared sight; the white face powder nestles into the deep lines of his face, and the cochineal red of his lipstick seeps into the spidery lines surrounding his mouth. The effect is startling, and reinforces the fact that this is an inherently visual film which comes together only during moments of pure performance.

It’s clear that Sorrentino is attempting a melancholic, softly humorous road movie; a tribute to Wim Wenders, the Coens, David Lynch; a touch of odd Americana mixed with the kitsch forces of 1980s retro all thrown in. Yet where Sorrentino has attempted to combine the utterly serious (the Holocaust) with the utterly trivial (a goose pecking at Cheyenne’s hands as he hides from a Nazi’s wife), the film falls flat. Instead of successfully tempering one with the other, the sequences take on an incoherent feel, revealing that the central premise – aged rocker as Nazi hunter – does not quite total as a narrative.

Instead, it’s in the scenes of performance that the film transcends its narrative and structural problems. The superficial and mannered tone finally sinks into its true place – as a performance to be enjoyed rather than attempted realism, however knowingly stylised. Firstly, a dazzling turn by David Byrne of the Talking Heads; onstage, all in white – an angel from the 1980s giving a perfect rendition of ‘This Must Be The Place’, a coup de cinema as Peter Bradshaw aptly describes it.

Secondly, a scene in which Cheyenne – as the only resident of a nameless, placeless chintzy motel – dances to Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’. Here, Penn-as-Cheyenne dissolves into one character; his slow, baroque and mournful dancing for his own bygone rock era is moving, and one of the few moments where Cheyenne feels like a whole character rather than Penn-as-effeminate-rocker pastiche. It’s ironic, as it’s the one scene in Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello’s script that Penn was dubious about as he read. It’s a short sequence, quickly subsumed into the mannered and awkward rhythm of the film, but a rare moment that proves Sorrentino’s skill as a director.

This Must Be The Place is by no means a bad film, but Sorrentino has fallen into temptation; producing the delicious images he is so adept at, but hanging them upon a script whose parts don’t hook into place. Instead, the film feels like a series of self-conscious poses. It’s a brilliant act of cinematic pouting, but at no point is the narrative at ease, or matched with Penn’s brilliant performance of a pickled teenage rockstar stuck in skinny awkwardness.

Contributor Basia Lewandowska Cummings can be followed on Twitter @mishearance.