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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge