During periods of crisis it’s not surprising that art should be drawn towards images of decadence and decay. For works of realism this embrace of decadence is, in a sense, not a failing but a prerequisite. Realism involves a refusal to hide the ugliness of the world. Is it possible then, to incorporate decadence without becoming its victim? Is there such a thing as a progressive embrace of decadence? Paolo Sorrentino’s film, The Great Beauty (2013) raises this question in a very timely manner.
The film recently won the Oscar for best foreign language picture. Well before that critics in the mainstream press were offering it near universal praise. The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin called it ‘a shimmering coup de cinema to make your heart burst, your head swim and your soul roar.’ Collin doesn’t hesitate to compare Sorrentino to past greats of Italian cinema, in particular Fellini. He’s not alone in this sense. According to Rachel Donadio in The New York Times, the film has even prompted something like a national debate on the state of Italian culture. Mariarosa Mancuso wrote in the centre right Il Foglio: ‘It’s a Kierkegaardian film. It’s a Célinian film. It’s a faithful portrait of the Eternal City. It’s a faithful portrait of Italy today.’
Many features of this portrait are not unique to Italy: the richness of the rich for example, which continues to grow while national economies go to ruin; and the corruption that both sustains and isolates the elite. Sorrentino’s mise en scène is an exquisite staging of this situation. His camera glides about the empty courtyards and palaces of Rome with an ease that is not just dilettantish but positively ghostly. These spaces which the rich have turned into their playground are dominated more by statues than by people. Like creatures too long sustained on shots of botox and trips to the tanning booth, Rome’s living inhabitants shrivel up in the shadow of the city’s classical heritage.
Already by the time of his first feature, One Man Up (2001), Sorrentino would appear to have mastered the post-neorealist construction of empty space. The unclaimed stretch of tarmac between a motorway flyover and an airfield, where the ex-football star Antonio Pisapia watches the youth team which he longs to coach, could be air-lifted straight out of the early Pasolini. Likewise the agrophobically proportioned apartments of the two mid-career castaways - Pisapia the ex-footballer, and his double, Pisapia the ex-singer - are time warps back to Antonioni’s visions of bourgeois alienation.
Working at a few years remove from the harsh realities of wartime Italy, these two directors will always be associated with the twilight of Neorealism rather than its semi-mythical origin as ‘the cinema of the liberation’. This was a moment when the French critic André Bazin could ask ‘is the Italian cinema about to disown itself?’ His answer, generous as ever, was of course ‘no’. But others - less generous, more partisan - felt there was a danger that a promising new take on realism was about to lapse into idealism. Marxist critics like Guido Aristarco charged neorealist directors - and not just the younger generation - with making a fetish of alienation, reducing it to an existential, in short, bourgeois concept, rather than a concrete phenomenon of modern capitalism.
In retrospect it was surely a mistake to reject out of hand this turn away from social realism. Doing so meant throwing out Antonioni, Pasolini, the later Rossellini, and Fellini’s greatest films, to name a few. But whether you agree with the Marxist Aristarco or the left-leaning Catholic Bazin, there is no denying that Neorealism was responding to real changes in postwar Italy. The empty spaces captured with such precision in these films were not merely psychological projections, or surrealist fantasies (however much they resemble paintings by de Chirico). They were attempts to take the coordinates of the new ruins that had sprung up in place of the old: those spaces without place characteristic of shopping malls, airports and bank foyers. In other words, all the new amenities of the boom years beginning in the late 1950s.
This was also the moment when the Christian Democrats displaced the left wing coalition that held power after the resistance. There were direct consequences for filmmakers, including the notorious ‘Andreotti law’ (1949), which gave the government powers to ban the export of any film that might give ‘an erroneous view of the true nature of our country’.
Flash forward to the end of the 20th century and we see how the corruption, sclerosis, and retrenchment of a party whose rule has lasted forty years has been a major factor defining Sorrentino’s own historical moment. Neoliberalism has hollowed out democratic institutions across the globe, but in Italy the effect has been extreme. Partly because of the steepness of the post-industrial decline, but also because of the implosion of the Left. Where else in Europe, after all, can you use the phrase ‘right wing communist’ without irony?
Sorrentino’s films should be seen against this kind of backdrop. Il Divo (2008) is the only one that makes explicit reference to politics. Its subject is Giulio Andreotti, prime minister from 1972-73, eminence grise of the Christian Democrats and the chief censor of the cinema of the liberation. In Il Divo the field of power is displaced from the grand hall of parliament to the corridors and antechambers of the Palazzo Chigi. These new spaces take up the role of vacant lots and foyers in Sorrentino’s earlier films.
Whether it is a strip of tarmac in One Man Up, or a hotel lobby in The Consequences of Love (2004), everywhere life is shuttled down the same narrow channels, cast adrift in the same shapeless containers. And everywhere the same nepotism rules its sphere of influence. Pisapia the footballer is prevented from coaching because he refused to go along with the match fixing of his manager and team mates. Titta di Girolamo, a former stockbroker for the mafia, is confined to effective house arrest in a hotel in Switzerland - punishment for a deal gone wrong many years ago.
From Alienation to Cynicism
Like Antonioni, Sorrentino is a filmmaker of cruelty, of alienation. By its nature alienation is ubiquitous. It colours every facet of social life. But this doesn’t mean that alienation is always and everywhere the same alienation. If we compare Antonioni, the early Pasolini, or the late Rosselini with Sorrentino, we find a marked difference in the specific tone of alienation. Characters in late/post neorealist films experience alienation as something that happens to them, that strikes them or bowls them over. They experience alienation as victims. Whereas in Sorrentino the characters are quite assured of their own alienation. In fact, throughout his films you can trace a progressive coming-to-terms with alienation:
In One Man Up the two Pisapias are caught off guard by their sudden redundancy, but still the attitude is one of frustration rather than existential nausea. In Consequences, Titta di Girolamo is far more accepting of his fate. Only at the end of the film does he rebel against it. Titta’s icy facade replaces Pisapia’s frustration, an attitude mastered in the name of calculating realpolitik by the Andreotti of Il Divo. The Great Beauty (2013) brings this development to a head.
All four films star Toni Servillo and can legitimately be regarded as a cycle. In this latest episode Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, author of a generation defining novel by the age of twenty five, now sixty five and earning a comfortable living writing the occasional arts review, in between parties that run all night, and siestas that allow him to shut his eyes to the heat and noise of Rome. Jep is not only impenetrable, not only calculated, but totally at one with his alienation from society and self. When a friend asks for help with her suicidal son, he brushes it off with a witty remark. When asked why he never wrote another novel, he replies: ‘because I was too lazy’. Remarkable dialectical twist: the alienation of self-alienation, a.k.a. cynicism.
There is a historical logic underlying this shift from alienation to cynicism. To put it in crude economic terms, Antonioni’s alienation represents the bourgeoisie in ascendancy. In his films, alienation is expressed in terms of a vague premonition or guilt, a vague awareness of injustice underlying a basically solid system. In Sorrentino’s context the system is either languishing in a state of crisis, or getting high on a temporary fix. Marx said that every capitalist is aware of the existence of crises, but each one continues to play the game, armed with the motto ‘après moi la déluge!’ In Sorrentino’s context this sense is heightened in the extreme: heightened by the legacy of Italy’s ‘May ‘68 in slow motion’, its near fatal confrontation with labour; heightened by a neoliberalism that appears to have generated profitability out of thin air; and heightened by the crisis of 2008.
The move from ‘straight’ alienation to cynicism is problematic because it tends to close down the possibility of critical distance. Although cynicism is still a form of alienation, it allows for no alienation effects, no aesthetic defamiliarisation of alienated structures. The cynical character is fully aware of his alienation; he accepts and even celebrates it. He is always second guessing the viewer, foreclosing the critical distance that might otherwise impose itself between spectator and spectacle.
We started off comparing Sorrentino to Antonioni, but Antonioni’s portrayal of the bourgeoisie was always withering, always critical, even when it was ambiguous. In fact, of all the Neorealists, Sorrentino is closest to Fellini - the most decadent, the most baroque, the least obviously realist. And The Great Beauty is Sorrentino’s most Fellinian film yet.
The Role of the Tracking Shot
The embrace of cynical consciousness leaves little room for manoeveur at the level of character and narrative. To carry the analysis further we have to return to the image. Sorrentino would be the first to endorse this approach: ‘Considering that cinema is aging, it seems strange to me that it shouldn’t ask questions about style... Films that only have content have already been done... innovation comes more readily through form than through substance.’
And yet we shouldn’t take this ‘baroque’ formalism at face value, which is what most critics have done, praising Sorrentino for his embrace of ‘film style as a convulsive, heady euphoria’ (Jonathan Romney writing in Sight & Sound back in 2007). The seductive camerawork performs a specific role vis à vis the characters’ cynicism. Gliding around the palaces and courtyards of Rome, we are reminded, firstly, of adverts for Smirnoff and BMW - a road becomes a woman’s back, a cascade of liquid freezes in mid air as the camera parts the veil of droplets in slow motion - and secondly, of the Fürher’s descent from heaven to greet the hysterical masses on the runway, as seen in the opening sequence of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1945). The fact that these images sit comfortably side by side (fascism and advertising), is less a sign of empty formalism than of a deeper aesthetic commonality. In both there is a double apotheosis, a dematerialisation of the world and its objects, and a quasi-material assumption of the camera. As the image starts to dream, the camera ceases to be merely a recording device; it enters the dreaming world imbued with a haptic function. Meanwhile the objects given by the image exchange their materiality for the optical function of the camera; they become hallucinogenic, malleable, associable, signifiable.
Hence a road becomes a woman’s back and the camera, the eye, becomes a hand, an invisible hand. The Fürher becomes a god precisely in the same moment that he becomes man. His entrance into the kingdom of men signals his heavenly origins, and so, in the same movement, his assumption of the mantel of universal man. This is what we see in The Great Beauty, particularly in the party scenes. The camera glides through the crowd (gyrating, intoxicated, hysterical), before settling on a solitary figure (upright, sober, disenchanted). This figure is of course Jep Gambardella, the great cynic. Sorrentino gives us universal man as cynical man - homo cynicus. And Jep’s story is the apotheosis of a cynic.
The Great Beauty continues Sorrentino’s stylistic evolution. The tracking shots and crane work in One Man Up show the two men stuck and lifeless like the statuettes that decorate their coffee tables. When the first Pisapia shoots himself in the head the camera spirals skywards, making his body spin on the ground like a label on a record player. The protagonist-cynic becomes the axis of a world collapsing under its own entropic energies.
The Consequences of Love (2004) offers a similar conclusion: the last shot shows Titta being lowered feet first into a vat of concrete. Here the camera is relatively still. Instead, it is the body itself which is rigged up to a crane. And in a second reversal, the ascension of the cynic, his final vindication, takes the form of a descent; the world is not a vortex but a swamp, whose placid surface gives no clue about the souls it regularly devours.
Death, the only release from a dying world, secures the apotheosis of the cynic. Consequences and One Man Up end on a note of Socratic irony. Il Divo gives this affective climax a Machiavellian twist. Finally, The Great Beauty converts it into a form of Hollywood sentimentality.
The final proof of the compensatory nature of Sorrentino’s film is the ending. Jep returns to the moonlit island where he met his first love. Flashback to their first kiss. Elisa reappears in short, arresting fragments. She is beautiful and slightly ethereal. She brushes him with her lips, takes a step back and says, ‘I have something to show you’. At this point the film is building to its tremulous climax, but the reveal is no existential epiphany. It is, quite simply, a young woman caught in the gaze of a misogynist, unbuttoning her shirt to show her breasts.
Fellini vs Sorrentino
So why all the fuss? One mark of praise stands out from the rest: the comparison with Fellini. At a superficial level this is correct. The Great Beauty is clearly a homage to La Dolce Vita (1960), right down to Jep’s dark rimmed glasses, styled after Marcello Mastroianni. Both men are journalists, both are womanisers, both have traded artistic and personal integrity for the bliss of anaesthesia.
Fellini is also notorious for his devouring male gaze; the way the camera lingers on Anita Ekberg like a goddess, for example. Even his late City of Women (1980), which begins with a feminist conference where Marcello is publicly humiliated, is no mea culpa but just another way of exoticising ‘the world of women’.
In general there is a tendency in Fellini towards the freakish and the absurd, the outcast and the exceptional. When he isn’t glamourising the bourgeoisie, Fellini tends to focus not on the working class, but rather on the déclassés fragments in between: itinerant performers, unemployed artists, and con men who rob peasants for their own petty gains. Not only is the depiction of class society muddied in this way, it is also rendered fantastical, miraculous - not so much naturalised but supernaturalised. La Strada (1956), for example, has all the qualities of a fairy tale: the girl who runs away from home to join the circus, the brute who imprisons her but ends up discovering his love for her. And yet far from hiding the realities underlying the tale, Fellini presents them frankly: the girl is sold by her own mother, the circus is a pitiful begging act.
It is the camera which first discloses these realities. The impression burnt on the inner eye after watching La Strada is one of dirt and detritus. The dirt of Zampano’s shirt, his filthy leather jacket. The dirt of the truck which serves as dressing room. And the landscapes strewn with bits of rubbish, flotsam and jetsam of a rural space which already bears the signs of its transformation into the city’s backyard. And yet amongst all this dirt Gelsomina appears like an angel...
Which version is true, the fantastical or the realist, the angel’s view or the starving clown’s? It is as if we were seeing two films at the same time, two films layered on top of each other. Every image in Fellini has this quality of two-ness, of multiplicity, a splitting in two or a tearing apart. Another way of putting this is to say that with each of his images there is something in excess. La Dolce Vita is full of scenes where the overriding impression is one of sheer chaos - a delirious, giddy compulsion. For example the night scene at the site of the miraculous tree. As if the mass of worshippers, police and paparazzi weren’t enough, all of a sudden a storm breaks out. The crowd breaks through the line; rain turns the ground to sloshing mud; the spotlights fuse and the scene is plunged into darkness in between flashes of lightning.
Fellini’s vision takes the form of a plunge or a fall. For him, to see the world clearly is to dive head first into it, to fall into it, with it; to fall with the falling, to grasp by a catch which always slips. This is why so many of Fellini’s films start in a mad rush. For example Ginger and Fred (1986), which begins with a mad dash from train station to hotel, as Ginger, the ageing tribute singer, is whisked away by the TV crew’s minibus.
It is not just a matter of overloading the frame with colourful elements. The splitting of the image comes from a certain relationship between camera and world. Unlike Sorrentino’s camera which idolises its subject, in Fellini the camera follows but it cannot keep up. The paparazzi in La Dolce Vita chase after celebrities, miracles and scandals. But the world always outdoes them, and in this way, they too fall back into the spectacle. This discrepancy between camera-movement and world-movement creates a kind of shearing motion that runs through the film like a faultline.
Confronted with images that destabilise our relationship with reality, it is tempting to speak in terms of distanciation and its opposite, naturalism, verisimilitude, or what the chief spokesperson of Neorealism, Cesare Zavattini called ‘pedinamento’ or shadowing. But Fellini’s images persuade us to think beyond these terms. In fact what we see is a decisive vacillation between the two poles of the realist image (naturalism and distanciation).
Take the last scene of La Dolce Vita. Like the ending of The Great Beauty it is a beach scene. Marcello’s life has tailspun into a cycle of money and intoxication. At one point he hesitated between journalism and writing a novel. Now he writes copy for a Hollywood wannabe. Gone are the painters and poets; his circle of friends has been reduced to a rump of cokeheads and groupies.
One last party: When the husband/proprietor kicks them out, they emerge onto the beach, a tangled mess of tear stained beauties. At the edge of the sea Marcello casts a glance across the horizon. A young girl is waving to him, shouting, making shapes with her hands - trying to tell him that she is the same girl who was laying tables in the little seaside cafe two, three, who knows how many years ago. The same seaside cafe where Marcello escaped for a moment to try and write his novel, perhaps. She is clearly a child and her expression is one of joy and unreasonable enthusiasm (nothing seductive about it). But now, haggard and macabre in his white suit, Marcello doesn’t recognise her. The waves drown out her shouts. Marcello turns away to rejoin his groupies. The film cuts to a close-up of the girl’s face. She looks not at us but past us. Then her gaze scans the horizon and in the moment that it crosses ours - not fixing on us but passing us, like a lighthouse in the night - we feel the earth tremble.
The angel can’t save us but she goes on smiling all the same: her smile comes too late, and when it comes it is too much. This is what the film makes us see and what it gives us the courage to confront. Between a fate we cannot accept and a life we never knew, there is something called a world, our world. Perhaps this is what Sorrentino wanted to say.
Criticism and Cynicism
The idea of Old Europe languishing in a state of decadence is convenient for the Right. Despite Sorrentino’s focus on the excesses of the rich (rather than the bad habits of the poor), the ideological atmosphere that he conjures mixes all too easily with the stereotype of lazy, profligate Mediterraneans. Certainly he offers no alternative, instead denigrating the Left as laughable and hypocritical. In one of the script’s main set-pieces, Jep humiliates Stefania, a former radical novelist. Earlier a close-up shows the pubic hair of a kooky performance artist, dyed red, a hammer and sickle shaved into one corner. As objects of ridicule, women and leftists are of a piece.
While Sorrentino’s latent sexism is deplorable, his condemnation of the Left is in tune with reality only up to a point. It contains no trace of recent struggles, short lived as they might be, such as the referendum against the privatisation of water and the million strong march against Berlusconi’s alleged sexual abuses (both in 2011, a year before The Great Beauty was shot).
Fellini (and in fact late Neorealism as a whole) could be charged with the same crime. Fellini also refuses to show any real resistance. But in his films there is always an impulse to change, if not an image of change. The way critics have invoked Fellini is little more than a means of adding colour to the image of decadent Italy – a cynical appropriation of the country’s film culture.
Couldn’t we venture that a profound identification exists between Jep Gambardella and the critics who praise his starring role? After all, Jep is a critic himself. Criticism is often confused with cynicism, but the critics falling at the feet of Sorrentino have completely abandoned the critical field. Their unmitigated praise would be suitable material for the pen of Jep Gambardella, post his moment of redemption: the Jep Gambardella finally at peace with the wretchedness of the world.
Alistair Cartwright's articles have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and 3AM Magazine. He writes reviews and features for Counterfire and edits Different Skies, a new online publication for experimental writing and creative non-fiction. He works for Stop the War Coalition, where he is a campaign organiser and commissioning editor.