PAOLO SORRENTINO CINE CITTA
THE ITALIAN DIRECTOR BUILDS ON THAT PILLAR OF ROMAN CINEMA, FEDERICO FELLINI'S LA DOLCE VITA, TO SHED LIGHT ON HIS ADOPTED HOME CITY HALF A CENTURY AFTER THE MAESTRO'S MASTERPIECE.
One of the functions of art, and cinema is no exception, is to transform the faults of an era in order to uncover aesthetic qualities in them. Why is it that each historical, geographical or cultural context forms its own idea of what is beautiful? Because beauty is designed to render the horrors of the present tolerable. And poets often manage to find inspiration in the waking nightmares of their contemporaries. The Black Death gave birth to the dances of death of the Late Middle Ages, the geniuses of the Renaissance learned to glorify the body during the Italian wars, the absurdity of Franz Kafka’s novels reflected the atmosphere of Austro-Hungarian society. Landscapes ravaged by the Industrial Revolution led to cubism’s rejection of classical perspectives… It is not that artists are captive to the vicissitudes of their time, but rather that they try to find mitigating circumstances for them. When we met filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, he had just finished shooting a film that was still untitled, which he was more or less sure would be about Rome, although it would not be a film about Rome as such. This is what he felt able to tell us about how it was shaping up: it is a story about a 65 year-old journalist who is used to living the high life in Rome, has never married, has no children, and ends up taking fright at the fragility of a life of excess and pleasure, to take refuge in the untouchable love of a dead woman.
Remember Fellini's La Dolce Vita and think about its candid portrayal of Rome, which had been disillusioned by fifty years of cruel teachings. It needed the stature of the filmmaker who probably gave Sean Penn the role of his career (a former Goth rock star who gets over his depression by pursuing a hundred-year-old Nazi) to try to improve on one of the greatest films of the last century. Paolo Sorrentino works like those watercolour painters who create landscapes with a few strokes of colour that are both precise and approximate. In Il Divo, the feature film that won him the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the filmmaker already revealed his taste for vivid sequences. Through this portrait of Giulio Andreotti, who served as Prime Minister of seven governments and was undoubtedly the most influential post-war Italian politician, he examines the character of this churchman-like politician who knew the intimate workings of a Republic built on underhand dealings and internal coups. This eminent Roman personality seems to see the justice system as a refined instrument of domination that his ancestors had passed from generation to generation. One of the most powerful sequences in this film with sparse dialogue shows the Prime Minister’s meeting with a Mafia boss of the Sicilian underworld. The politician sits still and cold as a waxwork statue, watching a sweaty farmer walk slowly towards them, with the steady, patient pace of an assassin. The Mafioso sits so close to Andreotti that he notices a small stain on his trouser zip. However, the impeccable statesman overcomes his disgust to embrace the vile individual who has come to pay his respects.
TOLERANCE AND DISORDER
"I haven’t travelled that much," insists Paolo Sorrentino. "But I don’t think any other city is like Rome. In other places, categories have to be more distinct, less flexible." It is almost as if the Eternal City is too old to clearly see the line between different things. "It is not just a political capital, it is also the capital of bureaucracy, entertainment and faith. Both its ugliness and its beauty lie in its strange confused vocation." Rome is a former marsh which has become the swamp of Italian life. It has the amazing ability to bring together different aspects that cannot cooperate without compromising themselves. It is a double-edged sword, which creates both tolerance and disorder. When these different spheres collide, they create what can be magnificent horrors, like the monumental chaos that residents of Rome call classicism: pagan columns supporting the porch of a church, city blocks buttressed against an ancient theatre, statues of Olympic athletes tucked away in the recesses of a wall. As if Rome was a kind of Hollywood on the Tiber, or “Latin” America. After all, local cinema does have the Cinecittà studios at hand, a genuine hub in its golden age, and still host to international blockbusters. But this humungous machine seems to have turned into an expensive luxury for the country, whose cultural policies have been unsure how to handle this gigantic legacy of Fascist propaganda. It certainly offered expansive resources to Italian directors, but their historical indigestion has made it a tool as unsuited to the actual volume of their needs as the delivery of a fleet of bombers to a local police station.
PAOLO SORRENTINO IN 7 DATES
1970 Born in Naples on 31 March
1994 First film with Un Paradiso
2001 His first feature L’Uomo in Più, wins a Nastro d’Argento for "Best New Director"
2004 The Consequences of Love, the story of a Mafioso in exile who falls in love, is selected for the Cannes Film Festival.
2008 Release of Il Divo, a portrait of the Italian political kingpin Giulio Andreotti, which goes on to win the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
2011 Directs Sean Penn and Frances McDormand in This Must Be the Place
2013 Production of a modern day La Dolce Vita, more than fifty years after Federico Fellini’s masterpiece.
And Rome is not exactly a big fan of cinema. It is relatively indifferent to the films shot on its turf. Its monuments attract tourists, but intimidate filmmakers who avoid it out of fear of platitudes. Paolo Sorrentino is fully aware of the risk of falling into the picture postcard trap: "Two people kissing in front of the Eiffel tower is a cliché. If they get attacked in the same place, it starts to become a tragedy." Fellini once said that all Italians were actors, and that only the least talented made it their profession. According to Sorrentino, it was not just the term "paparazzo", the tabloid photographer character in La Dolce Vita whose name has now entered common parlance, that his illustrious predecessor invented. He reckons that Rome in the fifties had the feel of a provincial capital city where everyone was in bed before 10 pm, and where a clothes shop just had to put a few hats in its shop window to create a stir. Fellini, who never ventured onto Via Veneto, made do with what his American friends told him about it. For Sorrentino, the magnificent natural recklessness which Roman society claims to adhere to is an urban legend, a character study that the city has been playing for years. In La Dolce Vita, the city transforms so quickly that the search for newness becomes just another shade of permanence. The power of this story is that it completely invented the fear of emptiness that the following generations experienced. But there is a difference in scale between Fellini’s fictional era and our own – it has to do with the fact that a community of individuals loses its illusions as it gains experience. "It is both progress and a pattern of despair that makes our time more vulgar, more cruel," says Paolo Sorrentino. The Rome of the "economic miracle" may well have been happier than it is now. Its innocence would likely have been out of place today. That’s the conclusion this filmmaker is coming to. "We have become so difficult to enthral."
Production Sandrine Giacobetti - Text Julien Bouré - Photography Jean-Claude Amiel