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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage