Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty: Directed with a hammer wrapped in velvet

The Great Beauty represents a clear maturation in style for Paolo Sorrentino - a film that is both emphatic and proportionate in its methods.

The Great Beauty (15)
dir: Paolo Sorrentino
 
The opening shot of The Great Beauty is just that: a shot. The camera stares into the gunbarrel of a cannon as it sends a shell almost directly into our faces. Audiences familiar with the director Paolo Sorrentino would be forgiven for thinking: “Here we go again.”
 
It’s no surprise when a tourist drops dead a moment later, or a partygoer screams in close-up: haven’t we all felt like doing one or the other when watching a Sorrentino film? He is not, after all, the kind of director who ever takes the softly-softly approach when the very-very-noisily-with-whooping-andcrashing one is an option.
 
For all his Scorsese slickness, Sorrentino’s true forebear in films such as Il Divo and The Family Friend has been Oliver Stone. Like him, Sorrentino directs with a hammer, even if he wraps it in velvet first.
 
He threw out the hammer for his last film, This Must Be the Place, which starred Sean Penn as a fey, Nazi-hunting Goth rock star (great idea, lousy movie). But in The Great Beauty he has at last located the middle ground between a contemplative sensibility and a dynamic style of cinema. The picture is set in a modern Rome of overripe hedonism, full of parties that would render the “great” Gatsby merely so-so. Hi-NRG music throbs as naked bodies roll lethargically on nightclub floors like rotisserie chickens turning on a spit; a woman bursts out of a model of the Colosseum while the real thing glows serenely a few hundred yards away.
 
Taking his lead from his protagonist, the 65-year-old journalist and socialite Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), Sorrentino regards this world with an amused detachment. It is palpable even when his camera is pushed in the faces of gurning partygoers, whooshing across azure waters or prowling nocturnal gardens like a panther.
 
This is the Rome of Fellini and Berlusconi in equal measure. Indeed, the shape of the film resembles Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, featuring an insider-outsider as our guide through the landscape of radioactively glowing cocktails and gyrating conga lines. Jep is partial to this society’s delights but aware of its hazards. He has failed to follow up his first, widely admired novel, blaming his wilted potential on Rome: “It makes you waste a lot of time.” He calls it “the whirlpool of the high life” – and while he will regulate the temperature and even dip a toe in from time to time, he has seen too much to be dragged fully into the vortex. Referring to the partygoers as “this wildlife”, he could almost be an anthropologist. The film responds to this in kind by isolating Jep through tight closeups, slow-motion and theatrical spotlights. Given Sorrentino’s general progress in the direction of subtlety, we can forgive him for clinging on to his trademark lighting scheme, which is half rock concert, half electrical storm.
 
If it’s disappointing that there is no single encapsulating image to rival that of Christ dangling above Rome from a helicopter in La Dolce Vita, at least the air of dislocated absurdity rarely wanes. In this unshockable culture, religion has shaded into show business, art into violence. A performance piece features a blindfolded woman running full pelt into a stone pillar. A knife-thrower tosses blades at a hapless volunteer, each incision producing a spurt of blue paint that creates a spattered outline in the canvas behind her, as though Jackson Pollock had marked out the scene of a crime. A child who seems to be in the grip of a primal tantrum hurls paint cans at a vast white screen while an audience of chin-scratching sophisticates gazes on silently. “That girl was crying,” someone says, recoiling. “Nonsense,” Jep replies, “she earns millions.”
 
The Great Beauty has no strikingly original argument. Its lament for the spiritual void beneath what Jep calls the “blah blah blah” is a familiar one, particularly in Italian cinema, stretching from the heyday of Fellini and Antonioni right up to Matteo Garrone’s recent prickly comedy Reality, in which an ordinary man loses his sanity trying to become a Big Brother contestant.
 
But Sorrentino’s film is both emphatic and proportionate in its methods – a palpable maturing for this director. He still loves his whiz-bang camera moves and slice-and-dice editing, except now he is starting to master tempo, too.
 
In one quieter moment, a woman tips her head back to stem a nosebleed and sees her bad habits reflected above her in an image that brings to mind the words of Marc Almond: “The sky is scarred with the trail of a plane/Seems that God’s cutting out thick white lines of cocaine.”
 
“The Great Beauty” opens on 6 September
Bunga bunga time? The Great Beauty stars Toni Servillo as the ageing socialite and journalist Jep Gambardella. Photograph: Gianna Fiorito, courtesy of Mongrel Media.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear