INTERVIEW: Paolo Sorrentino, writer/director of “Youth”

4 09 2016

In the social sciences, published literature carries a bias of statistical significance. If a journal accepts a given study or finding, it rises to the level of carrying less than a 5% likelihood of occurring due to chance. What that leaves out of the record is what doesn’t work – an equally valuable set of knowledge for anyone looking to do similar research.

What does any of this have to do with my interview of Paolo Sorrentino, writer/director of last year’s “Youth” and Academy Award winner for “The Great Beauty.” Well, aside from some notable cringe-worthy interviews that can play for laughs, we seldom see interviews with talent that don’t go well. As much as I’d like to say everyone can form rapport with their subject in an exchange, it doesn’t always happen.

And let’s just say my talk with Sorrentino wasn’t pretty. It’s been almost 10 months since I recorded this 10 minute phone interview, and I’ve been too scared to listen to it again. I don’t know what all went wrong. I was the last interview of the day, so was he tired from a long day of talking? We had to speak through an translator, so did something get lost in Italian? Could he tell that I just didn’t feel passionately about his movie?

Whatever it was, I feel compelled to revisit my pain on the occasion of Sorrentino’s mini-series “The Young Pope” premiering at the Venice Film Festival. Perhaps it will provide someone with the tools to avoid a similarly awkward interview. The talk definitely taught me to be careful about assuming autobiographical links, even when a film like “Youth” featuring an aging director makes the temptation too irresistible. Here we go…

Paolo Sorrentino directing Youth

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4 12 2015

From its opening shot, a twirl around a retro band covering Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got The Love,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” announces itself as an odd bird. To quote a project from star Harvey Keitel’s youth (which itself quotes Kris Kristofferson), the film is a walking contradiction. Many films set up dualities, even taking on a paradoxical quality, but this is really something else.

Despite its title, “Youth” is a film starring mostly senior citizens looking back on that stage of life through a foggy retrospective lens. Michael Caine’s Fred Ballinger, a retired composer, twiddles his thumbs in a Swiss mountain resort with Harvey Keitel’s Mick Boyle, a screenwriter still trying to plan his magnum opus with a team of industry neophytes at his beck and call. They pine for their younger years and opine on the frustrations of their more advanced ones, mostly just spinning their wheels.

Sorrentino matches their conversations with the style of his screenplay, a lax, discursive saunter that unfolds almost in vignettes. Separating these dialogue-heavy sequences are highly stylized montages of various guests and workers around the resort, each presented in a grotesque kind of tableau. (Except the lounge singer, for whom Sorrentino jarringly cuts from a performance to her chowing down on a chicken wing.) Be they the whorish fame-obsessed fans lusting after celebrities, a morbidly obese soccer player or a Miss Universe, all bystanders gets warped by his bizarre camera.

The people who get the most thorough cinematic treatment, oddly enough, are not the film’s two grey gentlemen. While they mosey around, much younger people in their field of vision find it quite easy to articulate themselves. Rachel Weisz, as Fred’s daughter and assistant Lena, hesitates little in expressing her disappointment with him. Paul Dano’s Jimmy Tree, a zen Method-style actor, loves walking others through his views in neat dichotomies. And, of course, Jane Fonda shows up for a cameo-length appearance as Mick’s starlet and muse Brenda Morel, an actress who certainly does not mince words in her big tirade.

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REVIEW: The Great Beauty

18 01 2014

If you’re expecting “The Great Beauty” to be a picturesque travelogue like “Roman Holiday” or Woody Allen’s recent “To Rome With Love,” you’ll be in for a bit of a shock.  Yes, Paolo Sorrentino’s tale unfurls in the Eternal City, and the setting does indeed inform the proceedings.  However, it is more than just a series of events in the foreground with Rome in the background.

Sorrentino’s film aims to strip back the facade of the city and examine what lies beneath.  There’s something more to the city’s beautiful art and architecture as well as the creative class of intelligentsia basking in its legacy.  But when Sorrentino drills for the core, he finds a lot of air.  That’s not to say the film is meaningless, but perhaps the lifestyles of the people parading across the screen are.

“The Great Beauty” exposes the vacuous hedonism of Rome’s elite.  Here, they bask in the legacy of history while leaving little of their own behind.  The film’s protagonist, writer Jep Gambardello (Toni Servillo), slowly discovers the vapidity of his social circle upon turning 65.  They’re obsessed with performance, and they’re either watching performance art or putting on a show of inheriting a city’s history.  Jep’s no exception; he wrote one novella while young yet never wrote another piece of fiction despite its incredible success.  Jep is numbed by the empty pursuit of luxury, leaving him in creative paralysis.

While Jep might be suffering from a lack of inspiration or ability to find what he calls “the great beauty” of life, Sorrentino has no such trouble.  His camera seems to glide perpetually through the picture, recalling Jeff Cronenweth’s photography for David Fincher’s “The Social Network” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  I do think the film is occasionally guilty of trafficking in the opulence it also critiques (seemingly a common thread this year – cough, “The Bling Ring” and “The Wolf of Wall Street“).

While the images never cease to stun, Sorrentino’s unique story structure often threatened to stun me to sleep.  Jep’s dealings with various Romans, from his editor to a 42-year-old stripper to a future saint, never really seem to build any dramatic momentum.  The film feels rather stagnant, making its point clear in about an hour and then lingering for an additional 80 minutes like an unwanted house-guest.  Still, at least “The Great Beauty” has a little something for you to chew on other than the classic iconography of the city.  B- / 2stars