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Paolo Sorrentino: Attracting an Audience with Visual Beauty and Quirky Narrative

Canadian scholar Russell Kilbourn talks about his new book and what makes a Sorrentino film: Aesthetics, Hollywood's influence and transnational reach

Frequently compared to Federico Fellini, Sorrentino’s typical stylistic approach is also a particularly spectacular example of certain contemporary trends in what can be called a transnational art cinema. Such films often have international casts, may be filmed in more than one country and they also often tell stories with characters who are somewhat rootless, who are wandering, looking for something, which in the end (as often as not) turns out to be some kind of self-knowledge.

Russell Kilbourn in Venice

Russell Kilbourn is a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, since 2006. Despite the fact that he just published a book, The Cinema of Paolo Sorrentino: Commitment to Style (Wallflower/Columbia UP, 2020), Russell  is neither of Italian ancestry nor in the field of Italian Studies. His background, however, is in literature and languages; he has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto, and since obtaining his degree he has gravitated from English and Cultural Studies toward film. Like many people of his generation, cinema for Kilbourn always represented a kind of escape from the mundane reality of suburban Canada—but not just the typical escapism of Hollywood movies; early on he discovered the more complex rewards of an international ‘art cinema’ tradition, and it is this that attracted him when he began to teach and write about film.

A scene from The Great Beauty

As we learn in this interview, at a certain point Russell watched Paolo Sorrentino’s “La Grande Bellezza” (The Great Beauty, 2013) and became intrigued by the cinema of this Italian director who had flown under the radar in North America until this movie hit the screens in the US. When Russell discovered that, despite the splash that Sorrentino’s movie had made, there was no serious academic study of Sorrentino’s cinematic and television work in the English language–despite  numerous such studies in Italy–he decided to do something about it and wrote that book himself. In this interview we find out a bit more about Professor Kilbourn’s career, his attraction to Sorrentino’s cinema, and what made him decide to fill the void that existed in Italian Studies.

Originally from Naples, Paolo Sorrentino is an Italian director whose films have reached an audience far beyond Italy’s borders, making his reputation as one of the world’s foremost filmmakers. Sorrentino has written and directed several critically successful and stylistically idiosyncratic international co-productions, including Il Divo (2008), The Great Beauty (2013),  Youth (2015) and The Young Pope TV series (2016).

“The Cinema of Paolo Sorrentino: Commitment to Style”, by Russell Kilbourn

Russell, you just published a book on Paolo Sorrentino’s cinema. Can you tell us what made you choose this director? 

“As was the case with many North American film-lovers, Paolo Sorrentino first came to my attention with the release of “The Great Beauty” (La Grande Bellezza), which went on to win Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Oscars. I didn’t see the film right away, but was eventually convinced to do so once some friends told me that they had already made the pilgrimage to Rome to do the ‘Great Beauty’ city tour, which at the time was already a thing, like the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, or the Ferrante tour in Naples. I don’t think that this is still going on in Rome, but at the time it was a measure of the film’s wide cultural impact, both within and outside of Italy. I quickly became a fan and watched the rest of Sorrentino’s films to that point. My wife (Sandra Parmegiani, who is Italian and an Italianist scholar) suggested I write a book; when I checked I found that, while there is a growing list of works on Sorrentino in Italian, there was no book in English for a non-Italian readership. Even now there is only this one, which seems strange to me.”

How would you place Sorrentino in the context of the much-respected Italian cinema?

“For some viewers and critics, Sorrentino represented a return to the kind of ‘authorial’ style from the postwar period of Italian cinema which, for many, is still the golden age, the high-water mark, against which everything else is measured. This way of thinking about a canon of great films as the product of a small brotherhood of preternaturally gifted directors is epitomized in Italy by a figure like Federico Fellini, with whom Sorrentino has often been compared.”

River Hawkins at Cannes Film Festival, 2013:Photo Wikimedia Commons

Are there many similarities between Sorrentino and Fellini’s cinematic style? Or is Sorrentino more representative of his own time period?

“While there are some stylistic similarities between the two directors, Sorrentino’s typical stylistic approach is also a particularly spectacular example of certain contemporary trends in what can be called a transnational art cinema. It is transnational because each film is a co-production depending on funding from a variety of different national-corporate sources. Such films often have international casts and may be filmed in more than one country, or even on different continents. They also often tell stories with characters who are somewhat rootless, who are wandering, looking for something, which in the end (as often as not) turns out to be some kind of self-knowledge.”

Is there a point where traditional Italian films, what you call of the golden age, intersect with today’s ‘trans-national cinema’?

“All of these characteristics means that such films can no longer be called ‘Italian’ in any narrow sense. And they are instances of ‘art cinema’ insofar as they continue a tradition dating back to the post-WWII period, in which a new kind of cinema emerged in Europe and then internationally, that was positioned as the ‘other’ to Hollywood’s typical big-budget, genre-based, mass produced approach to filmmaking. By this I do not mean to suggest that Sorrentino’s films are not commercial products, that they are not meant to find an audience and make money. Of course they are. But they are also 21st century examples of this alternative approach to cinematic story-telling and characterization—an approach that began, interestingly, with a movement like Italian Neorealism in the immediate aftermath of the war.”

What characterizes Sorrentino’s particular film style? 

“Sorrentino is justifiably famous for his films’ consistent visual beauty, their combination of quirky narrative, oddball protagonists, and spectacular image. All of his films feature long mobile takes in which the camera swoops around for no apparent reason, with close-ups of unusual faces or objects cut into the flow. It should be noted that this style is largely due to the cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, with whom Sorrentino has worked since the start of his career. The films and television series also often feature segments set to music, in the manner of MTV videos or TV commercials. Sorrentino, in fact, is famous for his use of an extremely wide and eclectic variety of musics in his films. His visual style, in fact, is unthinkable without the diverse musical soundtrack by which it is supported and punctuated, often ironically. That said, almost none of this music is actually composed for the films; rather, almost all of it is selected by Sorrentino himself, in his daily listening habits as a music lover.”

What do you think attracts the movie-goer to Sorrentino’s style?

“Unfortunately, for me, what attracts the typical movie-goer to Sorrentino’s style may be the same thing that makes this style problematic in today’s post-#MeToo climate. What links his film and television output with much contemporary cultural production is a tendency to exploit the bodies of (generally young and attractive) women. This raises a number of important questions: Why, in this day and age, would Sorrentino choose to take this approach? In my book I suggest that Sorrentino is not simply willing to do anything for a beautiful image, but that there is a criticism of sexist imagery concealed in the spectacle.” 

What criticisms have been made against Sorrentino’s films?

“As suggested, Sorrentino’s films have come in for a certain amount of critical censure from a contemporary feminist perspective. The other reason for this is that, to date, all of his protagonists have been white, middle-aged or older heterosexual men of a certain social class, representing an ironically misanthropic and melancholic worldview. Loro (2018), Sorrentino’s latest film, in fact, has a real-historical figure as subject: former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, notorious for making worse an already sexist Italian society. Within a generation, as owner of Mediaset, Italy’s largest commercial broadcaster, Berlusconi re-invented Italian television so as to naturalize the near-constant presence of scantily clad young women.

It’s a well-known fact that Sorrentino has been strongly influenced by American film. Can you tell us a little about that? 

“Many have compared Sorrentino’s visual style to that of Martin Scorsese, Joel and Ethan Coen, David Lynch, Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and others. For example, in Il Divo, Sorrentino’s idiosyncratic biopic of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo), famous for his political longevity during some of the most tumultuous decades in postwar Italian history, the protagonist is explicitly compared to such characters as Al Capone in De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), and Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976)—both violent psychopaths and both, as it happens, portrayed by Robert De Niro.”

Sorrentino’s directorial career has also expanded to television. What are the principal differences and similarities in his choice and treatment of themes in the two genres? 

“In broad terms, Sorrentino has remained remarkably consistent across his film and television output. He has written (or co-written, with Umberto Contarello) all of his films, and his editor (Cristiano Travaglioli), and, as noted, cinematographer (Luca Bigazzi) have been with him throughout his career. In ten one-hour episodes Sorrentino’s first foray into prestige television tracks the career of Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), who, as Pius XIII, at the age of 47 becomes the first-ever American Pope.”

An interesting question to ask, in the transition from his feature films to the long form television series, is to what degree (if any) does Sorrentino’s treatment of gender become more politically progressive?

“I have to answer this in a roundabout way. While there are still any number of semi-naked nubile female bodies in the series, The Young Pope signals a shift toward a different kind of masculine protagonist—the titular pope (Jude Law) is relatively young, handsome, vain, and has a brief nude scene in the opening episode. Lenny Belardo, a.k.a. Pope Pius XIII, is also, at first, reactionary, intransigent, intolerant, and smarter than his advisors. As the series progresses, however, he grows increasingly compassionate, eventually shifting from a hard-line pre-Vatican 2 brand of Catholicism to a more open and embracing form of faith indistinguishable from love.”

Il regista Paolo Sorrentino con il Golden Globe per La Grande Bellezza

Director Paolo Sorrentino wins the Golden Globes for La Grande Bellezza

Do you detect any evolution in Sorrentino’s representation of gender? 

“In terms of gender stereotypes there is a transition in The Young Pope from a more ‘masculine’ to a more ‘feminine’ pope in the same character, Lenny Belardo—a shift explained by the connected shift in genre toward a kind of masculine melodrama. The Young Pope turns toward a serious examination of the masculine protagonist’s introspective journey to greater self-awareness.”

And given that the Church also plays an important role in Sorrentino’s films, and that the protagonist in this film is a cleric, is there any evolution in the representation of the Church? 

“The big difference is that where the Catholic Church was treated with ironic ambivalence in The Great Beauty, in The Young Pope it is treated with considerable seriousness. In a typically audacious gesture, Sorrentino even goes so far as to stage a series of veritable miracles, implying his protagonist’s literal sainthood. In the end, though, the representation of women in neither The Young Pope nor its follow-up series, The New Pope (2019) shows any meaningful evolution. As in Loro, the Berlusconi biopic, there is still a tendency with Sorrentino to, as they say, have his cake and eat it, too.”

The Young Pope Screenshot. Photo:USC Annenberg Media

What were some of the challenges that you faced in writing this book? 

Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Verdone and Paolo Sorrentino. Photo: Elle.

“The biggest challenge I faced in writing this book was the fact that I do not come from an Italian studies/Italian cinema background. I was able to make up in part for this missing native Italian socio-cultural background thanks to my wife, who, as I mentioned before, is Italian, and came to Canada only as a young adult. So, for instance, when it came to films like Il Divo or Loro, with their explicitly political subjects, she was able to explain to me in detail what it was like to grow up and experience first-hand living in Italy while such men were in power, or how it felt to experience daily the bizarre and disturbing misogyny of Italian broadcast TV content. On the other hand, my wife helped me to appreciate all of the beauty—the truly great beauty—inherent in so much of the Italian cultural heritage—a patrimony (and the association here with the father is entirely conscious) with which a 21st-century filmmaker like Sorrentino is deeply familiar.”

What is your imagined audience for this book? Is it the academic community exclusively or the general public? 

“The likely audience for this book will be mostly an academic one, given the kind of book it is (Wallflower’s Director’s Cut series is well-known but aimed mainly at a cinephilic, film-literate readership). That said, I did try my best to write the book for an English-language reader with neither Italian nor a deep grasp of film history, theory, or film style. So it could also interest the general public that loves Italian films and in particular, Sorrentino’s movies.” 

Was it based on academic research exclusively or did you contact Sorrentino  himself?

“At first I did try to contact Sorrentino, in the hope of gaining an interview to include in the book, but in the end this proved to be impossible without solid contacts in the Italian and international film professional communities.”

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