Great Beauty, The: Interview with Italian Oscar Winner Paolo Sorrentino

Brilliant from start to finish, The Great Beauty, one of 2013’s best films, is Italy’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar (Read our review)

Origins of the film

the_great_beauty_2“I have long been thinking about a film which probes the contradictions, the beauties, the scenes I have witnessed and the people I’ve met in Rome. It’s a wonderful city, soothing yet at the same time full of hidden dangers. By dangers I mean intellectual adventures which lead nowhere. Initially, it was an ambitious project without limits, which I kept putting off until I found the binding element that could bring this whole Roman universe to life. And that element was the character of Jep Gambardella, who was the last piece of the puzzle, and who made the whole concept of the film possible and less confused.”  

Co-screenwrier Umberto Contarello

“We share a way of approaching things which now goes back more than twenty years. Our way of working is quite straightforward. It consists of chatting regularly — sometimes quite fleetingly, sometimes in more depth, depending on the ideas that daily life provides us with. Even little things, or the irrepressible need to tell each other a joke that made one of us laugh, might prompt us to write or to call up or see each other. Then, when the writing process begins, we go our separate ways. Like a long game of ping-pong, we send the script back and forth between us. I write the first version, I send it to him; he writes the second version; I do a third; and so on until the shoot, because a script can always be improved. The word end doesn’t exist in writing.”

the_great_beauty_4Indelible influence of Fellini

“Of course, Roma and La dolce vita are works that you cannot pretend to ignore when you take on a film like the one I wanted to make. They are two masterpieces, and the golden rule is that masterpieces should be watched but not imitated. I tried to stick to that. But it’s also true that masterpieces transform the way we feel and perceive things. They condition us, despite ourselves. So I can’t deny that those films are indelibly stamped on me and may have guided my film. I just hope they guided me in the right direction.” —To Jean Gili, April 2013


“Everything is important in a film, not just the shots. Even the soundman’s mood or the quality of the catering. Any microcosm, in this case a set, can fall apart for the slightest, most insignificant thing. It’s absurd, but it’s a fact. A single shot, if well thought out and balanced, can enthrall and say more than ten pages of dialogue – that’s why shots can’t be left to chance or delegated to others. Because it’s my job to make the film communicate and, God willing, to enthrall the audience. I always work with the same cinematographer because, naturally, he’s very good and because an understanding with the crew, and first and foremost the cinematographer, is essential to doing a good job.”

Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi

the_great_beauty_5“My relationship with Bigazzi is now long-standing and established. I have total trust in him, and we are fortunate to understand each other without speaking. So I give Luca the script, and I let him interpret it and work it out in terms of lighting. He knows I’d rather go down new, unexplored paths than to rely on what we know and what we’ve already done, and so I think he works accordingly. I’m increasingly satisfied with this method, and I’m always happy to discover the lighting he has created, rather than giving him guidance in advance.”

“I had one idea that was very clear in my mind: I wanted the lights to move in the film. I liked very much this idea. So either the lights were moving or the characters moved in and out of the lights all the time. And it was quite funny to see behind the scenes the director of photography moving around with the lights, instead of having a light source and him moving around.”

Jep Gambardella

the_great_beauty_1“A writer is constantly preoccupied with the idea of having to capitalize on his own biography on an artistic level. If that biography – as in the case of Jep Gambardella – is permanently drifting on the superficiality of high society, on futile chattering that is no more than background noise, on gossip reduced to instinctive pettiness, then that capitalization seems impossible.”

Influence of Ettore Scola

“The exhibition of prattling, the recourse to the lowest form of scuttlebutt, the proverbial ability to demonstrate meanness even towards one’s close friends, the disenchantment and cynicism that is currency amongst the Roman bourgeoisie – all of this borrows undeniably from Scola’s universe. That’s why I wanted to show him my film, and I was moved to see that he was deeply touched. At the end of the screening, he stroked my face for a long time, repeating how much he’d liked the film. And I, after many years, I was moved to feel again a feeling that I had completely forgotten: to feel like a son.”

Music in the film

the_great_beauty_3All very different, from many different backgrounds, but all with often underexploited potential, all just waiting to find good characters. From that point of view, I had great pleasure in calling on actors with whom I had already worked, and other very popular actors, like Carlo Verdone and Sabrina Ferilli, who usually play other types of roles. But I was sure – and this was confirmed during the shoot – that a good actor can do anything. Due to the considerable number of characters, I also had the possibility of working with actors with whom I had wanted to work for a long time but whom I had not been able to use in my previous films.”

 Actor Toni Servillo

“Toni Servillo is really a separate case. He’s the actor I can ask anything of, because he is capable of doing absolutely everything. I can now move forward with him with my eyes closed, not only as far as work goes, but also in terms of our friendship, a friendship which over time becomes more joyful, lighter yet deeper at the same time.”

Neapolitan character

“If there is one ironic element to this film, it is certainly thanks to Naples; I have been conditioned by it, and there is an irony there I have met in no other place. The personality of Toni Servillo is tied to a type of Neapolitan close to extinction today, who is able to lightly reconcile a passion for deep things as well as for superficial ones, without being a snob. Someone who was able to go to cocktail parties with stars and then spend time with Alberto Moravia. There is also a long literary tradition of emotional disenchantment which goes with a big city, which is where he uses the strength of cynicism as a form of defence against the metropolis. But all cynics hide a sentimental side, which in the case of the film’s main character explodes in the vision and fantasy of the girl he loved when he was young.” —To Camillo De Marco, Cineuropa, May 2013

Film’s epigraph from Céline

the_great_beauty_poster“This quote from Céline, which is the opening line from Journey to the End of the Night, is also a declaration of intent that I followed in turn in the film. It comes down to saying: there’s reality, but everything is invented too. Invention is necessary in cinema just to attain the truth. It might seem contradictory, but it isn’t at all.

Fellini once said: ‘Cinema verité? I prefer the cinema of lies. The lie is the soul of the spectacle. What has to be authentic is the emotion felt in watching or expressing.’”

Lessons learned from making films

“I’m afraid you never learn from experience, but experiences can be very funny. Luckily, from my point of view, you cannot capitalize on filmmaking. There’s no connection between what you do before and what you do after. It’s just a simple, single, wonderful experience that has no influence on what you do afterward. That’s my point of view. You can just make films and they become a beautiful memory, but you don’t learn from them.

“And I can say, because I’ve seen this from experience, that when a director says, ‘I’m going to do this because I’ve done this already, and I know it works,’ he’s making a mistake.” —To Ariston Anderson, Filmmaker Magazine, June 2013

Paolo Sorrentino Filmograpgy

2013 The Great Beauty

2011 This Must Be the Place

2008 Il divo

2006 The Family Friend

2004 The Consequences of Love

2001 One Man Up