There are worse things than being called the new Fellini, as Italian director Paolo Sorrentino admitted at TheWrap’s screening of his new film “The Great Beauty,” the country’s entry in this year’s foreign-film Oscar sweepstakes. But there are good reasons to deflect the correlation.
“Fellini’s a genius, so I can’t mind. But I am a little bit scared of this comparison,” Sorrentino told TheWrap film critic Alonso Duralde in a discussion following the standing-room-only — our thanks and admiration to those who stuck it out on the floor — screening Wednesday night at the Landmark.
Sorrentino noted that a scene in which his leading man, Jep, comes across a luminous Fanny Ardant on a stairway was an overt “homage to ‘La Dolce Vita.’ And some of the topics of my movie, I know very well, are also topics of 50 years before in ‘La Dolce Vita,’ (like) the idea of the emptiness in the life of a Beautiful Person. But this is just a movie, and ‘La Dolce Vita’ is a masterpiece.”
“Just a movie” is not the phrase on most critics’ lips right now, with the New York Times calling “The Great Beauty” “a deliriously alive movie,” the New Yorker saying that leading man Jep Gambardella is “Rome made flesh,” and Time calling the film … yes… “‘ La Dolce Vita’ 2.0.” (It opens Friday in L.A. for a week-long run at the Nuart.)
Sorrentino’s film follows the life of a celebrated journalist/socialite in Rome who’s most famous for the single novel he wrote decades before, and who spends the days following his 65th birthday and the death of his first love taking stock of his party-filled life. At TheWrap’s screening, you might have mistaken it for an all-out comedy, from the boisterous laughter that met much of the first two-thirds of the 150-minute film. It occasionally veers into surrealism and/or farce, yet as expose’ of shallow high society go, it’s marked by a satire that can only be described as … deeply tender.
“The movie tries to find the beauty in emptiness and in the stupid things of life,” Sorrentino said. “There are many things that I hate in the movie. But in doing the movie, I found out that I can also feel a tenderness for the things that I hate … After this movie, I hate a little bit less … If you do a movie about things that you hate, probably you don’t do a good movie. It’s important to do a movie about characters that you love. So I didn’t moralize … Behind the (immorality) of these people, there is a sense of fragility.”
The filmmaker’s empathy even extended to a shallow, rich wife whose delusions about herself are taken down about a hundred pegs in a hilarious but painful party scene.
“Even that scene where the main character says many, many things against that woman’s hypocrisy,” said Sorrentino, “I found out after making the movie that hypocrisy is important to survive in the world.”
“The Great Beauty” is a veritable love letter to Rome, but that didn’t make it any easier for him to shoot there.
“It’s very difficult to shoot in Rome, because it’s a museum in open air. So the government of the city is afraid about everything,” Sorrentino said. “For example, there is a rule about actors in movies that they must stay seven meters from the fountains or other monuments.”
But it was crucial to establish a love for the city via the movie’s luminous widescreen lensing, in order to get to the deeper loves Sorrentino wanted to explore, both of which are referenced in the film’s title.
“It’s easy to recognize the beauty of Rome,” he said, “and there is a beauty hidden inside all of the characters that are in the movie.”
And maybe that’s the biggest difference between Sorrentino and Fellini: As The Great Beauty ultimately reveals by the end of its tragicomic two and a half hours, he’s a lover, not a fighter.