The Problem with Paolo Sorrentino by George Hull

Image from film set of Il Divo
Image from film set of Il Divo

The work of Neapolitan director Paolo Sorrentino combines a compelling visual style with a unique sensitivity for psychological subtleties. The five feature-length films he has made all succeed in finding beauty in unexpected places, taking as their subjects a small town loan shark, two rock stars past their prime, a solitary banker living in a Swiss hotel, and a fallen politician. When Sean Penn saw Il Divo, Sorrentino’s study of the enigmatic seven times prime minister of Italy, Giulio Andreotti, he was so impressed that he said he would like to work with Sorrentino himself. The result is This Must Be the Place, Sorrentino’s first English language film, which reprises the concept of his first ever feature, One Man Up: a washed-up rock star finds meaning in vicarious revenge.


Sorrentino’s films are recognisable not just for their inventive camerawork and attention to visual detail. They also manifest a powerful and disturbing moral vision. Though Sorrentino undoubtedly has the requisite means of expression at his disposal, one often senses – also in his latest film – that he hesitates to subordinate them to his vision, as though part of him yearned to tell a story with a more conventional moral.


The film in which this split in Sorrentino’s artistic personality first became clear was The Family Friend. Released in 2006, Sorrentino’s third film is a subtly crafted character study of a loan shark named Geremia De Geremei (Giacomo Rizzo). This squat, sweaty, middle-aged usurer shares a grim tower block flat with his immobile mother. In town he shuffles around in a hooded coat that gives him the look of a gremlin, old shopping bags hooked over the cast of his permanently broken right arm. Slow panning, overexposed shots of Geremia wallowing in his damp home, a potato compress on his forehead for a migraine, leave us in no doubt as to the putridity of this miser’s existence. But the film artfully wins us over to Geremia De Geremei in spite of ourselves.


Its protagonist is cast in sharp relief by a background of beautiful, blank-faced youth. Whereas Geremia is always talking – winning people over, issuing threats veiled with a haze of antique civility, assuring his clients, whom he addresses with the old-fashioned ‘voi’, that his last thought will be for them – the town’s youth is taciturn and uniform; so much so that we start to wonder if it is made up of distinct individuals at all. While Geremia runs his mysterious errands alone, youth is almost always en masse: playing volleyball in identical team colours beneath his window, moving in a gaggle through the street, pulsating like one gigantic zombie-eyed polyp to techno music behind the window of a top-floor nightclub. And Geremia is always watching.


The abyss that divides Geremia from desirable youth is an open wound for which he has found no relief. So say the covert, melancholy glances he casts over his shoulder in the street. So says a scene which encapsulates in ten seconds the humiliation of his life. Scavenging on a free afternoon in the park, his metal detector locates a gleaming wristwatch in a bush at the foot of a palm tree. Crouching to pick it up, he realises too late it is attached to the arm of a topless youth, lazily taking the sun. ‘Deficiente! Che cazzo fai?’ she shouts, standing up to her full height – at least two heads above a crestfallen Geremia, who mutters his excuses and shuffles away. Once at a safe distance, though, he relives the scene in imagination, this time approaching noiselessly and, as the youth dozes, touching his naked toe to hers in an impossible minimum of intimacy.


When we look at the bland, witless specimens to which female youth attaches itself in Agro Pontino, we can’t help feeling Geremia deserves better. He has pluck and cunning, at least. Out shopping for his invalid mother one evening, he tucks groceries inside his baggy grey coat and presents himself at the till with just one boiled sweet in his hand. ‘I even have the loyalty card,’ he says cheerfully to a disdainful checkout woman, as his purchase inches its way along the conveyor belt. Even at his meanest, Geremia comports himself with flare. A sick old lady who visits him for a loan in the tailor’s shop he operates out of asks if her grandson might have a Gianduiotto chocolate. ‘Gianduiotti?’ says Geremia, gesturing with perfect bafflement towards a heap of complimentary chocolates scrounged from the restaurant next-door. ‘Who’s got Gianduiotti?’


So when a pair of newlyweds who have missed several payments receive a visit from Geremia – the twins who serve as his muscle in tow – it is hardly with the young spendthrifts that we sympathise. Having impounded their wedding rings and a couple of kitchen appliances, Geremia is on his way out when, just as the electricity goes off, he notices something. ‘Hands in pockets indicate nonchalance,’ he says to the beautiful young bride, her ineffectual consort hovering limp-lipped in the background. ‘But I see little sign of nonchalance here.’ To Elgar’s Cello Concerto, in a sequence of rare intensity, Geremia slips behind his almond-eyed debtor in the darkness and, with reverent slowness, reaches his hand into her jeans pocket, letting it linger there long after he has found the engagement ring she is concealing. Arching her back, the girl’s breathing quickens as she realises what by now we are sure of. He has the right.


The Cello Concerto building to a climax, we cut to a roadside out of town where Geremia stands gazing in stunned identification at a lone scarecrow strung above the Pontine Marshes. Unlike the film’s youth, into whose lap looks and love have fallen effortlessly, Geremia is not a lucky man. When he goes fishing, it is his morose associate Gino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), and never Geremia, who comes home with a catch. If now his safe deposit boxes are crammed with euros, and the feckless clients who visit his tailor’s shop call him ‘Dottore’, this is down to a lifetime’s cautious cerebration. Sorrentino’s film shows us there is a beauty to the way this ugly miser has held himself clear of the swamp.


The Consequences of Love, from 2004, is structured similarly to The Family Friend. Its minimal plot is prepared in cryptic snippets picked up on in a lightning quick montage near the end which takes it to dénouement. So, in the opening scene, the protagonist’s attention is drawn to a passing hearse by the woman his love for whom will have fatal consequences. Later, strolling through a mall, he refers in thought, à propos of nothing, to the capo di tutti i capi whom he will fail once too often: ‘How long has Nitto Lo Riccio been on the run? Twenty-five, twenty-six years?’ As in The Family Friend music and camerawork respond to one another intricately, giving many scenes a balletic feel. Long stationary shots and short bursts of elevator-style music combine to evoke the repetitious emptiness of Titta Di Girolamo’s exile in Switzerland.


Since the fifties, Italian cinema has been at risk of descending into either pure style (L’Avventura, Romanzo Criminale) or pure sentimentality (Miracolo a Milano, La Vita È Bella). Sorrentino’s second film manages to descend into both at once; and the result, though not ultimately satisfying, is at least enlightening. The imperturbable Di Girolamo (played by Toni Servillo), always impeccably groomed and stylish in his dark turtleneck sweaters, embodies an ideal of total composure which, despite the Lugano setting, is utterly familiar: we might as well be observing Phileas Fogg in the Reform Club. To maintain his imperturbability Di Girolamo must inject himself with heroin once a week – ‘on Wednesday mornings at ten o’clock sharp’ – which only reinforces this impression, adding a touch of Sherlock Holmes. As does the fact that beneath his slick carapace lies a reservoir of formless emotion which, if once it bursts its dam, will flood out in a stream of random, self-destructive behaviour. With this mix of elegance and childishness Sorrentino reinvents an all too recognisable stereotype: the English gentleman.


Far from recreating a stereotype, Il Divo, as well as being Sorrentino’s best character study to date, captures in archetypal imagery events which, over Italy’s murky last half-century, have taken on the quality of emblems.


As Andreotti dissolves an aspirin for his migraine, a montage shows motorcyclist assassins setting out into the night to commit the murders in whose investigations the former prime minister’s name would keep coming up. The camera has a personality – playful and curious. It cartwheels over the handrail of Blackfriars Bridge to show us Roberto Calvi’s hanged corpse beneath, creeps up from behind on the moustached Sicilian about to open fire on carabinieri general Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, circles Michele Sindona (financier to the Vatican and Cosa Nostra) with grizzly attentiveness as he throws down the coffee cup he has drunk from in his maximum security prison cell and the strychnine does its work. Later, while uomo d’onore Stefano Bontate yells at onorevole Andreotti, ‘In Sicily we’re in charge!’ the camera swoops between them, exploring the hunting lodge where this meeting is said to have taken place. But for the most emblematic moment of all – referred to during Andreotti’s trial as, simply, ‘the kiss’ – it stands stock still. In Ignazio Salvo’s spacious Palermo apartment it watches, paralysed with disbelief, as Giulio Andreotti and Totò Riina (real-life capo di tutti i capi, who really was on the run from the police for more than twenty years) solemnly brush cheeks.


The film focuses on Andreotti’s turbulent final premiership and his unsuccessful bid to succeed Francesco Cossiga as president of the Republic. Toni Servillo, fitted out with a hump in his back, projecting triangular ears, and a full head of wiry dark hair, skilfully conveys Andreotti’s quick wit and self-deprecating charm. His ruthlessness is also on display when he prolongs a trivial phone call rather than come to the aid of a longstanding ally, Salvo Lima, whose life is threatened by the Mafia. And we see the rewards these character traits – combined with a lifetime of early rising – have reaped for the frail-looking politician. At Paolo Cirino Pomicino’s party celebrating the new government’s inauguration, the dance floor is bare save for the hired dancing girls. As the camera glides through Pomicino’s apartment we realise why. Fidgeting in a queue which snakes through several rooms, the party guests are waiting their turn to beg a favour from Andreotti, who sits perched on a low sofa, his right-hand man Franco Evangelisti (Flavio Bucci) whispering the details of each case in his ear. As in The Family Friend, we are invited to see the beauty in Andreotti’s personal victory over natural disadvantages. Sorrentino cleverly leaves it to one of Andreotti’s political opponents to make this explicit. During a parliamentary session he turns to the deputy beside him and says: ‘Guarda Andreotti adesso, ma guardalo bene … Guarda, e impara come si sta al mondo.’ ‘Watch, and learn how to carry yourself in the world.’


With hindsight, the stuff of conspiracy thrillers would appear, in post-war Italy, to have been plain reality: a secret masonic lodge whose Fascist grandmaster was plotting a coup d’état, a massively rich crime organisation in charge of half the country, a series of unexplained bombings, and a civilian airliner shot down in the Tyrrhenian sea with a missile fired by no one knows whom. In the circumstances, it was hard for anyone in Italian political life to keep their hands clean; although exactly how dirty Andreotti’s became is still contested. In 2004 the Court of Cassation ruled there had been ‘concrete collaboration’ between Andreotti and the Mafia, but insisted (perhaps somewhat conveniently) that all collaboration had abruptly stopped just early enough for the statute of limitations to rule out a conviction. In Il Divo he confesses, in a fit of insomniac anxiety, that it was ‘anche per mia colpa, per mia colpa, per mia grandissima colpa’ that the ‘strategy of tension’ (collaboration with far-right terrorist groups) was pursued for decades. His crescendoing monologue ends with a couple of lines which, as much as they offer a justification for his politics, condemn Andreotti’s personal hubris: ‘How greatly one must love God to understand that evil is necessary for good! God knows this, and I know it too.’


Sorrentino’s achievement is to have captured the tantalising moral ambiguity of his film’s subject. In a scene which sums this up visually, members of Andreotti’s security detail attempt to open the back door of his official car. Rain is pouring down as, one after the other, jackets held up above their heads, they tug at the unresponsive door handle. Slowly the camera pans round, allowing us to glimpse their charge sitting perfectly still behind the window glass, his face obscured in shadow – still giving up none of his secrets. The more facts there emerge about the years for which he was steward of the Italian Republic, the more one question seems utterly unanswerable: Is Giulio Andreotti a good man?


It is hard to understand why Sorrentino undermines this hard-won moral ambiguity in the film’s final scene. As Andreotti sits in the fortified courtroom on the first day of his trial for Mafia collusion, the last words are given to Aldo Moro. Moro was the Christian Democrat Party Secretary kidnapped and finally killed in 1978 by the far-left Red Brigades. From his ‘people’s prison’ he wrote letters which became increasingly abusive of fellow party-members as he realised they were not going to negotiate with his captors. One of the last contained a striking phrase describing Andreotti. He was, wrote Moro, ‘indifferent, leaden, absent, cocooned in his dark dream of glory’. By relaying this condemnation, as though over walkie-talkie, just before the closing credits, Sorrentino seems to capitulate to conventional wisdom at the last moment, falling in with the dismissive attitude to Andreotti which the rest of the film shows is too simplistic.


There is a similar failure of nerve, only more extreme, in The Family Friend. After subtly inducing us to sympathise with Geremia De Geremei, two thirds of the way through his film Sorrentino bizarrely begins treating him like a comic-book villain and starts plotting his comeuppance. On her wedding day, a beautiful blonde, Rosalba (Laura Chiatti), offers to sleep with Geremia if he will cancel the interest on the loan her father took out to pay for the celebration. The plot point has been carefully prepared. We know that Rosalba is not just bland but heartless. She thinks her fiancé is a ‘deficiente’, laughs at her father for the trouble he has taken over the wedding, and makes no effort to hide her scorn when first introduced to Geremia. Furthermore, it is she who proposes the payment in kind. So from the moment Geremia goes to Rosalba’s workplace some time after the wedding and tells her remorsefully, ‘I killed you, I know that,’ nothing in this film rings true – least of all the implausible trick Rosalba and Gino play on Geremia to separate him from his hard earned millions. As in Il Divo Sorrentino plucks a hideous but fascinating truth from the undercurrents of moral awareness. As in Il Divo his hand falters, and he throws it back.


The problem with Paolo Sorrentino is evident in his latest film too.


This Must Be the Place follows a retired rock star on his search for Alois Lange, a former concentration-camp guard who humiliated his father in Auschwitz. Sean Penn plays Cheyenne, a visual copy of The Cure’s Robert Smith, who still dyes his long hair jet black, wears lipstick and powders his face, though his performing days are long past. He spends his retirement moping around in his underpants, following the price of Tesco shares and trying to beat his fire-fighter wife at handball, which they play in the unfilled swimming pool of their palatial home in a Dublin suburb. With his tilted posture and stalling, croaky laugh which sounds like a death rattle, Penn endows the main character with the scars of a long depression. Some of Cheyenne’s antics will raise a smile – two teenage girls who laugh at him dragging his granny trolley around the supermarket in half-moon specs return to their shopping to find the milk cartons slashed. But fundamentally Cheyenne is as boring as any depressive, and the camera is soon drawn away from him to the contoured face of veteran Nazi-hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch) or – as the search for Alois Lange progresses – to the landscapes of the American Midwest.


As in Sorrentino’s previous films the photography (with Luca Bigazzi in charge) shuns conventional panning, seeking the most artistically satisfying frame for each shot (especially of interiors) and preferring to capture the human face either in perfect profile or squarely from the front. At times the camera is virtually a character in its own right, lurking in the grass, crawling up people’s legs, twisting and diving in the upper vapours of Cheyenne’s hotel room when he binges on rum. In Utah, contemplating a picturesque valley, it is surprised by Cheyenne’s passing car and whips around just in time to catch it crossing the suspension bridge.


But the film relies too much on insufficiently integrated vignettes, becoming in its later stages little more than a series of talking heads. The most impressive of these is 95-year-old Alois Lange who, tracked down in his trailer hideout on a mountain ridge, gives Cheyenne his version of the humiliation he is avenging. ‘God is like…’ the weary Nazi explains, ‘God is … God … Never mind, I can’t remember anymore.’ Putting his sunglasses back on against the snow’s glare, he lapses into silence.


The film’s Bartókian soundtrack and its many long, stationary shots of melancholy faces are reminiscent of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema – only enough, though, to make one regret yet again the untimely end of that filmmaker’s career. For whereas Teorema ends with an industrialist giving his factory to the workers and running naked through a desert screaming, the last scene of This Must Be the Place is emblematic only of Sorrentino’s last-minute capitulations to conventional wisdom. Walking back up the suburban street on his return to Ireland, Cheyenne turns out to have abandoned his goth look: his face unpainted and his hair in a short back and sides, grey around the temples, now he is just plain old Sean Penn.


One can at least say that Paolo Sorrentino is on the move. But his latest film suggests that movement takes the form more of escape than of progress. Unless he can address his persistent failure of nerve, the potential of Italy’s most spectacularly gifted living filmmaker will be squandered.


This Must Be the Place, starring Sean Penn, screenplay by Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, was released on DVD 13th August 2012