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The Genius of Paolo Sorrentino

Born in Naples in 1970, Paolo Sorrentino offers his original, thought-provoking perspective on some of Italy's darkest times. He is celebrated in cinema around the world as his films reach well beyond the borders of Italy.


One of the most innovative filmmakers of our time, whose films tell stories of complicated, layered characters faced with consequential choices, Sorrentino is an artist's artist, one who makes films to satisfy his own hunger and vision. In doing so, he makes films that are so simply honest and politically incorrect, you can't help but appreciate their fundamentalism and identify with some part of the protagonist's human flaws. 


His characters have ranged from rock stars to political icons to criminals. But the one thing all these diverse characters have in common is the inner moral struggle facing each of them. His characters find themselves on emotional, soul-searching passages in which they go through deep introspections of the choices their greed and ego led them to make.


Early in his career, Sorrentino teamed up with fellow Neapolitan filmmaker Toni Servillo and the two have worked on several projects together creating portraits of narcissistic characters who live in dark underworlds of society. These underworlds, sometimes having to do with the mafia and in other cases, the Roman club scene, are parts of society that indeed exist. They are realities discussed in hushed tones, which the general public doesn't really want to acknowledge. But Sorrentino dives right into these worlds, carefully examining the characteristics and motives of the people immersed in them. 


Here's a look at Paolo Sorrentino's films and a few of his collaborations with Toni Servillo.


L'uomo in più (One Man Up), 2001

Set in the 1980s, L'uomo in più shows the parallel lives of two men with the same name, Antonio Pisapia. One is a top soccer player and the other a successful pop singer. Servillo plays the part of the pop singer. Both men experience the height of success and the depths of failure. It is a deeply poignant story that balances dreams and reality.


Le conseguenze dell'amore (The Consequences of Love), 2004

Sorrentino's sophomore effort earned Toni Servillo his first David di Donatello award. The story centers on an organized crime accountant found laundering the mob's profits. Servillo delivers an intense depiction of a lonely man who falls in love with a young barmaid, played by Olivia Magnani, granddaughter of Anna Magnani,  and is willing to risk everything to be with her, including his life.


Il Divo, 2008

Servillo teams up with Sorrentino again to play the iconic Giulio Andreotti, a former Italian prime minister, fixture in Italian politics for nearly eight decades, and the subject of corruption investigations in the 1990s. Sorrentino and Servillo collaborated to present their take on the complicated topic of post-war Italian politics and succeeded in actually simplifying the subject, focusing on the career plateaus and valleys of one of its key players. Elected seven times as Italy's prime minister, Andreotti was known for his signature round-shouldered, slow moving stride and sense of strong inner energy. Servillo articulately embraced those characteristics and truly became Andreotti.

Stream Il Divo on Amazon

This Must Be the Place, 2011

Sorrentino's 2011 film, This Must Be the Place was his first feature film in English. Starring Sean Penn as Cheyenne, an aging punk rocker in search of the answers to a mystery surrounding his late father, the film explores life and love after as one heads into middle age. Frances McDormand gives a heartfelt performance as Cheyenne's supportive wife unafraid of giving a few lessons in tough love. The search takes Cheyenne on the highways and backroads of the United States, where he meets a whole host of characters, each of whom leads him one step closer to his destination, physically and emotionally speaking.

Stream This Must Be the Place on Amazon

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), 2013

Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza, which stars the director's top actor, Toni Servillo, won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. 

 

The film's A-list cast which features Rome natives, Carlo Verdone and Sabrina Ferilli, tells the story of the Roman club underworld. Toni Servillo takes the lead role of Jep Gambardella, an uninspired writer who recounts his days as a young spectator who became seduced and intoxicated with power, finding himself caught in a web of superficiality, disillusionment and corruption. Sorrentino described La Grande Bellezza as "a film which probes the contradictions, the beauties, the scenes I have witnessed and the people I’ve met in Rome; a wonderful city, soothing yet at the same time full of hidden dangers."


The film has been called a "swooning love letter to Roman decadence" and Sorrentino did not hold back on the rich, colorful sets and wardrobe. Much of the film was shot on a terrace overlooking the colosseum, so there is always that element of Rome's indulgent, morally questionable history. The film takes us on a whirlwind trip through a select society with extreme highs and lows that produce euphoria one moment and desperation the next.

Stream The Great Beauty on Filmstruck

Youth, 2015

Sorrentino's 2015 Youth is his second English language film and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel with Jane Fonda and Rachel Weisz, Youth tackles coming to terms with aging and dying, and living each moment with the fearlessness and enthusiasm of a younger version of yourself. 

Stream Youth on Amazon

Loro, 2018

Divided into two parts and slated for a 2018 release, Loro is the story of Italy's controversial former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Sorrentino announced the project back in 2016 at the 73rd Venice Film Festival when he was presenting the first two episodes of his HBO series, The Young Pope. The project had been shelved for a while and then in April of 2017, Variety reported that filming would start during the summer.


Plagued with scandal after scandal, Berlusconi has been in and out of office since the mid-90s. In November of 2013, he was expelled from parliament amid accusations of sexual relations with a minor and bribing a senator. Two years later, he was found guilty of bribing the senator and was barred from public office for five years. In year three of that ban, Berlusconi is moving full-speed ahead with his comeback. In the weeks leading up to Italy's election on March 4 of this year, he was at center stage campaigning for the neo-fascist party Brothers of Italia (Fratelli d'Italia), which is included in the newly formed coalition of Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the far-right Northern League (La Lega). So, the timing of this film couldn't be better. 


Loro will document Berlusconi's rise to fame, his hunger for wealth and much of the corruption that was present during his years in office. 

Watch the trailer for Loro on YouTube

Our Conversation

After recently going through my archives of interviews, I discovered a few gems that for one reason or another, I did not publish. Among those gems is my 2005 interview with Paolo Sorrentino. At the time, he was a young, relatively unknown Neapolitan making some pretty great movies. Lucky for us New Yorkers, the Italian cinema authority in town, Antonio Monda, saw something in this young director and rallied for his films to be shown at major festivals in New York. The first being in 2002 at the inaugural edition of the Tribeca Film Festival. Sorrentino was on hand to present his early masterpiece L'uomo in più, which introduced Americans to the infinitely talented Toni Servillo. I have this fantastic memory of chatting with one of the producers after the film. Our chat led us outside and I found myself walking through the streets of Tribeca with Paolo Sorrentino, Antonio Monda and this entourage of Neapolitans. 2002 pre-dated my journalist days, so I wasn't thinking about interviews or photos. I was just enjoying the fun, slightly surreal moment of being surrounded by these cool Neapolitan filmmakers.


Fast forward a few years when Sorrentino returned to New York to present Le conseguenze dell'amore. When the film was shown in 2005, I was writing about Italian cinema for Chicago's Italian-American publication, Fra Noi. So I had the opportunity to actually sit down with him and ask him about filmmaking. I found him to be sort of a gentle giant, mostly because he is so tall. He was soft spoken and laid back but confident in his convictions. He spoke about his influences and I found it surprising that he doesn't feel his Neapolitan bringing-up influenced his work. When I speak with Neapolitan filmmakers, they are usually passionate about the artistic influence that growing up in the culture of Naples has had on their creativity. Sorrentino is a man of few words and chooses those words carefully. However, he was courteous and direct in his replies.


The interview was never published because I opted to write a profile instead. His English and my Italian were not quite developed back in 2005 and there was no translator available, so the interview was very short and sweet. However, I thought with all the success he's had in America, why not just publish it. So here it is.. my interview with the great Paolo Sorrentino at Lincoln Center's Fifth Annual Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.


Tell me about the role of the Mafia in your latest work. What message are you trying to send?

The basis for this film is that the mafia is not just an Italian phenomenon. A great deal of culture or the “brains” of the Mafia is actually based in Switzerland. We cannot deny that we have Mafia, but it’s not only in Italy.


What do you want to say about Italy to the world through your films?

My films say that we must stop with the stereotypes about Italians. The error is to think that Italian people are different from other people. Italian people are just like people from other European countries. They are not different. If you pay attention carefully in this film, you will see that inside, all these people are equal.


Does being from a magical city like Napoli, steeped in so much history influence your self-expression as a filmmaker?

No, not at all. I am from Napoli but I enjoy European and American cinema. I don’t choose to write about Napoli in film or express my experience of living here. However, sometimes I use Neapolitan actors in my films, such as Toni Servillo.


How did your collaboration with Toni Servillo come about?

We were friends before we worked together. He is a very powerful actor. He is different from other Italian actors. He’s very expressive. Usually Italian actors are minimalists. He is more extreme. 


 It's been fascinating to see Sorrentino's evolution as a director since his Tribeca premiere 15 years ago. His works over the years have been quite different from one another, yet they each contain his unique curiosity about the human condition, regardless of one's nationality or background. Perhaps this is the key to his success.


By- Jeannine Guilyard