When The great beauty won the Oscar a strange disease spread that turned even the most disinterested spectator from Transformers 4 and popcorn bin in an eminent author of the Cahiers du Cinéma. Many they chanted to one alleged unpreparedness of the Academy in having chosen Sorrentino’s film, considering it an absolutely unworthy product of the Italian representation at the authoritative award ceremony. “It doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t make sense”: the leitmotiv of the chorus of resentment towards the film celebrating the empty existence of the cynic Jep Gambardella was almost always directed towards the narrative structure of the work. Even the brilliant imitations of Maurizio Crozza, who did not even try to dilute the phonetic defects that reveal his provenance that was anything but Campania, on the nonsense of the plot. “I can make a film about absence,” says Crozza with tousled hair and dental prostheses, “Oh nice, do you want to make a film about the absence of values?” asks the comedian’s imaginary interlocutor, “I thought more about the absence of a plot”. As if the stories were necessarily told through a linear and rational concatenation of events, without taking into account that fundamental distinction between fabula And sjužet theorized by the Russian formalists to differentiate precisely the basic plot and the plot that instead the author wants to give in telling that same plot.
Paolo Sorrentino, in reality, has in mind the plot he wants to give to his films. On the other hand, what the director sometimes lacks, given the very infamous impalpability of the stories he stages, is another thing. Some of his films, more than nonsense, seem to want to flaunt a sense at all costs which, in the end, comes in the form of exaggeration. In his rather limited production – he has only shot eight directorial films and a television series for Sky – it seems that the delicate balance between images, almost caricatured characters and dreamlike excerpts bears the impact with the final result in a fluctuating way. All the protagonists of him are, in fact, a re-presentation of themselves, even if slightly varied: a man who is confronted with the crisis of an extinct, or corroded, or so excessive power that it has turned into boredom. It is as if there was a Jep Gambardella in each of his films – if we want to make him the greatest exponent of Sorrentino’s poetics, at least for a question of popularity.
Since the first feature film, the theme is that. The extra man, from 2001, is about a former footballer, Antonio Pisapia, who interrupted his career at the peak of success due to an injury and who tries in every way not to be spat out of the world he comes from, trying a career as a coach and failing (quite miserably, considering that he kills himself); at the same time, his namesake, as well as a character who will start the partnership between Servillo and Sorrentino, experiences the failure of a not particularly brilliant musical career, broken by a sexual scandal. Both the narrative and aesthetic elements typical of Sorrentino can be identified in a nutshell already in this first film, which makes squalor and decadence the scenery for a sometimes “incomprehensible” representation, if by this term we mean all those pieces of the scene in which apparently unrelated things happen – like women screaming and crying on the beach, divers and ballet dancers. Probably in the director there was still that mixture of shyness and prudence from a first work to put a slight brake on his imagination, so much so that the result for The extra man it is that of a film that is not at all obscure, despite the less didactic features of a traditionally linear plot.
In the next two films, however, that situation of miraculous balance is created between Sorrentino’s intention to generate an atmosphere full of his poetics and the possibility of translating it into something very interesting. The consequences of lovefirst, but above all The family friend they are like this: while you watch them you know you are on a razor’s edge between a jumble of random – and pretentious – images and an objectively very successful film. The story of the usurer inserted in a social fabric unrelated to a particular determination of time and space, surrounded by a metaphysical landscape reminiscent of a painting by de Chirico and characterized above all by the acting and the very appearance of the protagonist, the actor Giacomo Rizzo, stands perfectly. The spiritual decadence of such a character mixes well with the peaks of surrealism, between characters dressed as cowboys and desperate brides who appear as sorrowful Madonnas.
With The family friend the individual parts that make up Sorrentino’s cinema reveal themselves and what happens when the final impression becomes a meaningless mix, that is, when one of these parts prevails over the other, leaving a void that generates confusion in the viewer. The film in question, in fact – just like all Sorrentino’s films – has no real dialogues but a series of existential monologues which alternate, composing a picture of absolute maximums on the meaning of life. The same thing happens ne The celebritywhere Andreotti mainly emerges its aphoristic nature: it seems that the Christian Democrat president speaks only in memorable and exemplary phrases of the entire world around him. While in these two films the structure that supports this communicative artificiality is very strong, having an effective aesthetic apparatus that supports the whole, in other Sorrentino’s films this does not happen exactly in the best way. And it is at that point, then, that one is led to think things like “it means nothing”.
With regard to The great beautyhis movie plus harassed – certainly because the most exposed – what in my opinion can be attributed to the film is precisely the banality of the message, when each sentence wants to become a precept rather cheesy of hedonism and high-bourgeois emptiness. Although, in my opinion, The great beauty however, he manages to convey the idea of a long and dispassionate postcard of Rome well, which is why according to the director himself liked the Americans so much, more than for one – albeit obvious – Fellini’s ambitions. Also considering that The sweet life it is one and it is universally established (I hope) that it cannot be replaced with some modern reinterpretation. This lack of dialogue, therefore, is always present, only in other films such as The celebrity And The family friend fades into the background thanks to a contour density that dampens redundant and didactic speech. Which does not happen in other films, like This must be the place And Youth, where Sorrentino seems to rush even more towards an ostentation of ethereal and at times rambling lyricism. The result thus appears to be a collection of decontextualized monologues that claim to dig into the abyss of the human soul, to the point of being grotesque.
Here too we are faced with the representation of individual decay, with the memory of an old and now extinct glory: that of Sean Penn as a fallen rock star and devoted to incommunicability and that of two retirees who contemplate the end of their lives, immersed in metaphorical scenarios and bellowing, next to a kind of Maradona obese who can no longer dribble, weighed down by the gravity of existence, a women reminiscent of fertility iconographies, and other such things. Too much determination to make a film that contains a high sense and that instead ends up losing it completely, too many individual plots that end up overlapping and not being able to pull out even one that is worthy of following. All accompanied by a base note: boredom. At least, Jep Gambardella’s revelry in the opulence of Capitoline opulence, however cloying, still keeps the attention alive. In these cases, however, the images and characters do not sufficiently support the mask that Sorrentino has always hidden from his biggest problem, that of not being exactly an ace in writing dialogues, which he prefers to delegate to universal formulas.
And therefore, it is not that his films do not make sense or that this is too high to understand, so much so as to make them appear useless exercises in style that translate into a widespread antipathy for the director – who is also quite shy of his own. If anything, it is when he is unable to give adequate support with what he does best – images, in fact, not words – that he then risks disappointing those who appreciate him and annoying those who are already leaving with a poisoned tooth. And then it doesn’t take anything to say “eh but in Sorrentino’s films you don’t understand anything.”
At the dawn of his latest film, Theirwhich promises a frenetic and loaded representation just like in the case of de The celebrity, I therefore hope that Sorrentino has not missed the most effective point of his stylistic code, those baroque and exaggerated portraits that make him always recognizable, but also another element that is perhaps the key to the success of his best films: the depiction of the scam. The protagonist of de The consequences of love, who deceives his tormentors; Jeremiah is a swindler, the usurer of The family friend, who in turn is cheated by someone smarter than him; he is a swindler Giulio Andreotti, because what he really was has never made anyone understand well; and Jep Gambardella is also a scammer, who lives on the income of an artistic explosion that has by now been completely consumed but which continues to make him pass for a world from which he no longer wants to leave. That Silvio Berlusconi could be an excellent starting point to continue this cycle of celebration of deception, I hope so, and I imagine that there is plenty of material. Instead, I hope that it does not get lost in a narrative overloaded with meanings that lead to nothing but their own parody, and consequently to Paolo Sorrentino’s parody.