Director Paolo Sorrentino is restless. Throughout his first six feature films he’s tackled themes on everything from loneliness, to politics, to unfinished business with a refreshingly unique sense of anarchic pleasure that only he could imagine. With his new film, The Great Beauty, he’s managed to pack everything that conversely inspires and scares him into one gorgeous and biting epic. I had the opportunity to sit down with the cheeky Italian director at the Criterion Collection offices to talk about his new film.
The Great Beauty occupies a fascinating grey area. At once it’s sort of a love letter to Rome done with a nostalgic eye that many characters—including the main character, Jep—remember as a fond ideal, but on the other hand it can be seen as an indictment or condemnation of the blatant excesses of modern Italy. Do you see it that way?
It isn’t an indictment of the excesses of present day Italy and it isn’t a love letter to Rome. It’s rather a film on difficult, tiring, and hard lives.
Was it your intention to represent or depict a specific period in Italy as you see it? Not necessarily in a historical sense but more of a commentary on the present in Italy?
Yes I did, but that wasn’t a priority of mine. It is a side effect of my intention to talk about some characters that I feel close to my heart, specifically because of their weaknesses.
The Great Beauty is your fourth film with actor Toni Servillo, who is great in your films because he seems to disappear into any role. He’s able to be so subdued in something like Consequences of Love yet so mercurial in The Great Beauty. What is your rapport like when you send him a script or while on set?
This is my fourth film with Toni and I really no longer know what to say about our relationship. [Jokingly] This may be the 400th interview over the years in which I’ve had to describe my relationship with Toni! The answer is that we’ve known each other for many years and we’re so close to each other that it’s really hard to identify what is there between us. Professionally we follow the same principals and the same attitude.
The script is always there as a starting point and as our guide, as our point of reference throughout. It’s very specific and precise and it animates his character and the character’s relationship with the other characters. It’s there as a silent, ever-present guide for both of us. So the two of us on set end up not talking that much. We do talk alone a lot, but not that much about the character or about the film. So the thing is that the script is truly our constant, ever-present point of reference.
This is also your second film in a row writing a screenplay with screenwriter Umberto Contarello. How does that collaboration work?
We meet before and we talk about the movie during lunch, but we don’t remember too much of what we say because during lunch we drink. Then I go back home and I write the first draft and I send it to him. He rewrites my first draft and gives it back to me. We do this sort of back and forth like Ping-Pong.
Another frequent collaborator of yours is Director of Photography, Luca Bigazzi. He’s helped establish your signature fluid camera style, and in The Great Beauty he was able to capture Rome very beautifully. It looks gorgeous and is probably my favorite looking of all your films. Do you have the same sort of shorthand with him because you’ve worked with him for so long as well?
Yes, I think it’s definitely a result of that.
How did you shoot the movie, on film or digitally?
I also wanted to ask about the soundtracks to your films because you’ve experimented with them a lot. The Consequences of Love has an electronic-based score and This Must Be the Place has music by David Byrne and Will Oldham—and also the film is obviously named after the classic Talking Heads track. The Great Beauty purposefully mixes classical music with modern EDM. Can you talk about that dichotomy within the context of the film?
It was very easy to tackle this in the film because the music choices reflected something that is intrinsically connected to Rome, which is this combination or coexistence between sacred and profane elements. To show that, I thought music was the most immediate way to reflect this combination. So there is sacred music and there is profane music. By “profane” I mean music that can be forgotten. It’s not even Pop, it’s what I would call a byproduct of Pop.
The Great Beauty starts off with an extended party scene at Jep’s birthday that is mostly dialogue-free. It reminded me of a kind of music video. How does the music in your films—or this scene specifically in The Great Beauty—function in place of dialogue?
Music is the most immediate tool that one has at their disposal because it doesn’t require any cultural knowledge or common ground in order to convey an emotion. So it’s a formidable tool to combine and provide a synthesis of the emotions one wants to convey in their movies.
I love how you surrounded Jep with a large cast of these indolent characters narratively orbiting around him in circles, which I found to be a nice Dante-esque touch. Have you yourself come across these types of characters in an autobiographical sense, and do you perhaps feel a similar existential crisis as they do?
I love mystery a lot, and I like to be mysterious myself [laughs]. Therefore I cannot answer this question.
I found the film to have a very unique view of religion. Much like its contradictory take on Rome it sort of lampoons faith but at the same time a religious character in the film sort of off-sets the pettiness of Jep and his group. Did you intend for this to go along with the same culturally informed gray area except with spirituality?
I think it’s a lot simpler than what you described, even though I’m fascinated by your analysis and your interpretation.
After living through an overdose of things he doesn’t find much of a meaning to, Jep finally comes into contact with a nun—it happens to be a nun, but it could just as easily be a layperson as well—who tells him things that are so simple and banal and plain in nature that they end up being exactly what he needs to find a thread that allows him to explain things.
I’m fascinated by the structure in your films, and a lot of the time reducing the films themselves to plot descriptions can trivialize them. The episodic structure of The Great Beauty itself reminded me of a scene in the film where a little girl throws paint on a canvas over and over again as the complete work gradually reveals itself. Do you ever worry about the way your films—and maybe The Great Beauty particularly—reveal themselves to the audience, or even to you while making them?
This comparison between the painting scene and the movie is very beautiful and very fitting. But I never actually think about the audience and how they can perceive my films while I’m making them, not because I’m a snob but because I think as you’re making a movie this attitude can be a trap and can hold you down. When you’re thinking about the movie and fleshing it out the audience isn’t there yet. You are the only audience, so one can think that if you like it then other people can too because you’re a human being like other people who will watch it.
And I really did like that comparison you made with the girl’s scene because it is exactly that way for the film. The film is there and tries to reflect moments of life, and life is that way. Life is sort of a random scrambled thing where many different elements come together, and it’s only in the end when you can see the beauty of it all.
Your last film took place in Ireland and the States. How did it feel coming back to Italy to make your next film? Was there a desire to make a film there that informed the development of The Great Beauty?
My American film [This Must Be the Place] was based on a type of film that I’m very drawn to, which is a very simple—almost elementary—type of film. I worked a lot on that simple movie to make sure I could make it that simple, and then after having done it to provide myself an element of novelty and to shake up my life I thought that I would move to something radically different and make a very rich and full movie.
I’d done the same with Il Divo, which came right before the American movie and was quite rich and full. So I like to alternate between the simple movies and films such as this one, which can almost be an overdose.
The film has received many international accolades, including a nomination for the Palme d’Or, and it was also a main entry at TIFF this year, but I wanted to ask a specifically American question. It was chosen as Italy’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the upcoming Academy Awards. How does it feel to represent Italian cinema in that capacity?
It does feel like a responsibility, but I do, at the same time, have a light-hearted approach to this because it’s not up to me anymore. I did what I had to do in my responsibility to make the most beautiful movie I could make and I did that. So now it’s out of my hands and I’m ready for whatever will come. I must say though, I still have a high degree of emotional involvement.
The film is being released theatrically here in the US by Janus Films, which means it will inevitably be included in the Criterion Collection when it’s released stateside on DVD and Blu-ray. What’s your reaction to your film eventually being grouped alongside other films by possible influences of yours—for instance, the films of Fellini or Antonioni?
Fellini used to say something which I’d like to use for myself. He used to say, “Every morning when I wake up I think that this is the day they’re gonna find me out—find out that I’m a fake.” And I feel that way.
Do you think Fellini is your most important cinematic influence?
I definitely think so, yeah.
Are there any talks about what will be included in terms of supplemental material on the eventual Criterion Collection release?
I think there will be a very long interview that I did yesterday morning. I do hope they put that in because it was so tiring and so exhausting [laughs]. I was locked up in a room under bright lights for two hours so they better put it in there!
Before we wrap up, I want to ask about the quote from Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s “Journey to the End of Night” that opens the film. It says something to the effect of “Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.” Do you think that statement pertains to this film only or to films in general?
Well I can only talk as far as I’m concerned, and as far as I’m concerned that is applicable to everything. A quote like that coming from Celine, who in my mind is the greatest writer of the Twentieth Century, authorizes or humbles small people like us to feel free to imagine life and to try to make it up in the truest possible way.
Well, that’s all I’ve got. Thanks for talking with me.
Thank you very much.
The Great Beauty will be released theatrically by Janus Films in New York on November 15th, Los Angeles on November 22nd, and expand nationwide through the end of the year.