In Paolo Sorrentino’s previous film, This Must Be The Place, God is described as stillness, as the snow that rests. This is peace, the snowflake’s journey is never over as it prepares to alter form, but in its stillness lies the art of a calmness that transcends all other states of being. Without spoiling the film, Sorrentino’s first international success, The Consequences of Love, concludes with a moment of total immobility. It is not stillness, it is the total loss of movement, and it is a rare moment of hopeless loss in oeuvre. The gliding, throbbing, endlessly propulsive movement of life is the dominant motif that unifies Sorrentino’s diverse filmography. It is easily noted in the pounding mixture of sound and movement that rushes the audience off their feet, so to speak, in the truly ecstatic birthday party that stands as the first chapter. It is impossible to read a review of a Sorrentino film without it being mentioned that he has a hell of a way with cinematic movement. But this movement is not only for the eye; his characters are constantly engaged in a desire or failure to move forward. Through his engagement with their quests, Sorrentino demonstrates himself as one of the great multimedia philosophers of 21st century life. Unlike many of his fellows, his films refuse the brick wall of nihilism, nimbling capering over or around them with a sense of hope, dignity and respect that electrifies. The Great Beauty is no exception.
Our ever-present hero in The Great Beauty is Jep, played with a seemingly effortless perfection by Toni Servillo, an upwardly mobile man of words and parties. He talks of writing books on nothing, a telling indictment of the world he has built for himself; and yet, movement is not nothing and everything in his life is still moving, either forwards or backwards in time. On the river of life, movement is inevitable, just as the river-bound credits sequence demonstrates. We can try to convince ourselves of an impenetrable nothingness, that our life has come to a grinding halt, but then again, maybe we are just confusing depression with boredom, to quote a character from This Must Be The Place. Everyone here asks Jep “Why not another novel?” and underneath this question is “Why did you not move forward?”
Cinema is movement in the face of stillness. Characters such as Jep & Cheyanne represent the self-gratifying/destroying illusion of immobility in an endlessly shifting world. They have given up & stopped rather than change or try anything honestly different. Cinema can be viewed as a pile of still frames flying together, but cinema is not and never will be the stillness of a single image. Sorrentino, better than most, realises the potentiality of movement in the face of stillness that is cinema. God is in the snow that rests, and yet is forever in a state of continuance, shifting and creating new forms. “Pain is not a final destination” is the underlying mantra before which each of his characters stands or falls.
In a recent Sight & Sound end of year poll, one critic pointed out how many films this year were about getting home. Sorrentino’s characters have residences, but homes they are not. The world around them has become objective, dominated by a sense of disconnect. Titta Di Girolamo (also played by Servillo) in Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love is marooned in a Swiss hotel; Cheyenne doesn’t know why his pool contains no water or why CUISINE is written on his wall (he belongs to his home but it does not belong to him); Jep looks to his ceiling & sees the ocean of his distant youth and feels the distance more than anything. ‘This Must Be The Place’ sung by David Byrne speaks of home, “Home is where I want to be, pick me up & turn me round”. His stories are life journeys, road trips of the soul, in which the final destination is not a physical space but rather an mindful one in which confidence and happiness can thrive.
The Great Beauty is exceedingly long, with languors that may test the viewers patience and highs that will have you buzzing days later. Taking this circuitous route, Sorrentino captures something of the ups and downs of life, of the strange intersections that can set the soul aflame or crush the heart under foot. While it is not an entirely successful film, it is one of those rare films for which that is a positive quality. Let it meander and refuse clarity, sometimes you just have to wander through a film and let it move around you instead of through you. In its loose connection of incidents & characters The Great Beauty can feel like much is missing in the connective tissue. These connections may not be drawn & quartered on-screen for your easy elucidation, but they are there. They are as much there as the empty/not-empty space in each step you take. The footfalls register with clarity, but if we are not paying attention then we will miss the moment of the movement.
Sorrentino, discussing his relationship with his adopted home town of Rome, stated that: “I don’t really want to understand it. Like all the things we understand completely, the risk of disappointment is always round the corner….I’m contented just to get a sense of it, to pass through it, like a tourist without a return ticket”. If I were to simplify this meandering, slightly perplexed jumble of words into a review then it would be: If that quote runs counter to the way you experience & enjoy cinema then perhaps this particular creature is not for you…but maybe you should take a walk through it first and see. The view from there might reveal a wonder.
By Ben Buckingham
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writer(s): Paolo Sorrentino & Umberto Contarello
Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli
Runtime: 142 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: January 23 2014