by Sonya Chung
“Most atrocious words; most beautiful words,” says Aloise Lang, a former Nazi prison guard, in Paolo Sorrentino’s 2011 film THIS MUST BE THE PLACE. Lang is referring to the letters that a survivor of the prison camp wrote to him for years and years—a fixated expression of rage in response to a particularly demeaning incident involving Lang. “I hated your father,” the nonagenarian Lang says to Cheyenne, the has-been rockstar protagonist of the film, “because his obsession with me made my life impossible. But I have to say that he completely won me over: the unrelenting beauty of revenge; an entire life dedicated to avenging a humiliation. That’s what I call perseverance. Greatness, even.”
Greatness and beauty. Sorrentino—a Naples-born university drop-out who made his first feature film when he was 31, and who at 43 won last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar—is himself obsessed with these two driving forces of life: his most recent film is in fact called THE GREAT BEAUTY. And, as Lang’s words imply, Sorrentino is interested in churning up the strange and unexpected ways that beauty and greatness are achieved, discovered, expressed. His films are filled, for example, with close-ups of faces—sagging, leathery faces, often caked on with makeup and lit brightly—aging, lumpy bodies, baldness and bifocals, bad teeth and stubby hands. For Americans, Sorrentino’s images work like reverse brainwashing, antidotes to Halle Berry-esque perfection. Even youth (e.g. a fat kid singing The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” painfully off-key) is portrayed as “ugly,” or, in Sorrentino’s vernacular, strangely epic and beautiful.
I mention Sorrentino’s age—his relative youth, for an artist so accomplished—because what I have found most intriguing in his work is the character vehicle he’s chosen, time and again, for his explorations: the aging male in his unlovely twilight. There is the washed-up pop singer Antonio Pisapia in Sorrentino’s debut feature ONE MAN UP; the apparently imperturbable, heroin-addicted exile Titta di Girolamo of THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE; the reptilian usurer Geremia in THE FAMILY FRIEND; the compellingly creepy politician Giulio Andreotti—aka Il Divo—in his final act after 20 years in power; goth rocker Cheyenne (played by Sean Penn in red lipstick, black-kohl eyes, and Elvira hair), estranged from family, self-exiled in Dublin; and finally Jep Gambardella, the 65-year-old bachelor journalist from THE GREAT BEAUTY who published one acclaimed novel in his 20s but then never wrote fiction again. All of these protagonists (three of whom are played by the inimitable Tony Servillo) are in danger of withering or sputtering out, and none too gracefully. In most cases, hard and ugly living has caught up with them, one way or another, and melancholia is setting in.
It may be worthwhile at this point to consider Sorrentino’s sense of tragic irony: there is a scene in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE where Cheyenne tells the granddaughter of Aloise Lang—a pretty waitress who has just informed him that his burger is overcooked and that, well, That’s life—
You know what the problem is, Rachel? Without realizing it, we go from an age where we say, “My life will be that” to an age where we say, “That’s life.”
Inherent in Sorrentino’s fixation on old age—from the perch of his own comparative young age—is a fundamental irony, cruel and comical: if you can figure out how to grow old, how to face your deterioration and eventual death, then you will have figured out how to live. The irony being, of course, that by then it’s too late. “Better late than never,” says Rachel to Cheyenne, after he shares the revelation that his recently deceased father probably did love him after all. “That’s not true!” he shouts in response (one of the few moments in the film when the depressive, whispery Cheyenne raises his voice). “Late is LATE!”
But it wasn’t too late for Sorrentino, at age 40 and on the heels of his breakout international success IL DIVO, to publish his first novel. Hanno tutti ragione—published in 2010 and translated, in 2011, as Everybody’s Right—once again features an aging male musician, Tony Pagoda, at its center. The novel opens in 1979: Tony, 44 years old, lounge singer extraordinaire, is performing with his band at Radio City Music Hall. Frank Sinatra himself is in the audience and comes backstage. The meeting is anticlimactic and mildly humiliating, and Tony, already on the road to drug-addled disillusionment, goes on a particularly bad bender, which leads to a full-on mid-life crisis and much high-octane philosophizing. And off we go along with him.
Fans of Sorrentino’s films know them for their stylish visual density and inventiveness. It seemed unlikely that such technicolor exuberance would translate verbally, but ultimately it does—like in this description, which precedes Tony’s wife Maria asking for a divorce:
This is a fantastic period in terms of work, I’ve just made it back onto the long wave of positivity, success is snuggling around my hips like a hula hoop that just won’t stop spinning, I feel like a Texas majorette, radiant with a gleaming smile, an epitome of vivacious well being, the cupola of my cathedral, the central nave running broad and straight to the main altar of joy and before long the big tour’s going to kick off and I’ll be seeing even less of this little house of terror than I do right now.
Or this one, which I quote in small part (it continues for two full pages):
I have made love underwater with at least sixteen female creatures, I’ve gone at it hot and furious in a rubber dinghy in Force 6 seas, I’ve enjoyed kept women, shopgirls, whores, second-rate novelists, lesbians, swarms of coeds studying accounting, a few students from classical high school, red armies of hotel chambermaids, a Czechoslovakian gymnast, more than one Danish farm girl, mothers on unemployment unencumbered by any interests amidst their vast boredom, pharmacists with an unhealthy enthusiasm for cocaine, and vegetarians who came close to unnerving my erection with vaporous clouds of incense scattered throughout the apartment, I’ve fucked the wives of everyone I know and even a stunningly vulgar helicopter pilotess, as well as two nursery-school teachers at the same time during playground time. . .
Throughout the novel, Sorrentino indulges in similar over-the-top maximalism—in some ways surprising for a filmmaker whose scripts lean toward laconic and aphoristic, but not so much when considering the ways visual energy might morph into verbal.
Tony’s story is excessive and vulgar and violent and often funny, and, at surprising moments, profoundly moving. We meet Tony when he is jaded and knowing; everything is familiar, and fake, and cliché:
Now they’re talking about why a calzone is better than the classic Margherita pizza . . . You work like a mule to transport your music outside of a certain narrow parochial regional context, and then it’s the Neapolitans themselves who are the first to roll around on the floor wrapped like fashion models from the seventies in a transparent veil of the worst stereotypes.
It’s the ability to be surprised—to perceive and experience the unexpected—that Tony can’t afford to lose, lest his life become utterly predictable and meaningless. Whether it’s the delightfully shocking way that a prostitute positions herself, or the gentle way in which a drug kingpin rescues him from crossfire, or a glimpse of his own ability to feel compassion and tenderness, Tony needs to be regularly knocked off of his ironic, been-there-done-that perch. These small moments throughout the novel keep both Tony and the reader hopeful, the narrative energy fueled by bits of subversion that Tony doesn’t see coming.
And in this way, Sorrentino continues to play with his theme of life’s cruelty: in middle age, Tony often thinks he’s experienced and wise, but in fact it’s this confidence in the ironic perspective that betrays his youthful foolishness. The ability to change, to doubt oneself and see things anew—an idea that risks sentimentality—is something Sorrentino cares about: “When you’re a kid,” Cheyenne muses thoughtfully in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, “it’s very hard to back off of your decisions.”
It’s this tug-of-war between the ironic and the sentimental—style and emotion, expression and moral imagination—that characterizes all of Sorrentino’s work. Sorrentino wants it both ways, and I personally love that about his vision: young and old, feeling and knowing—we want the whole human experience, all the time, don’t we? In his response to a bit of speechifying from Gegè, an elderly friend, Tony says:
You just have to know how to say things . . . You have to know how to say them, either to scare people, or to move them to emotion. That, to my mind, is the gift that Gegè had given us: fear and emotion, without distinction.
Through his visual and verbal styles alike, Sorrentino works hard at both scaring his viewers and readers—with ugly living and old age, melancholia and violence and death—and at making them feel something. In an authorial wink to the reader, Tony says:
I never go to the movies. When the show is over, outside the theater the fragility of normal existence awaits you. This brutal, violent acceleration makes me suffer like a poor man among poor men. It makes me feel as if I’m outside of the life I’d like to belong to for good. The life you see in the movies. Outside, it’s all just one huge rape.
Scary, indeed. If the movies, if a novel, can scare you this much, then perhaps they can awaken you from the safe slumber of know-it-all irony and encourage you toward living, feeling, being open to wonderment and change. “There are at least three lives, maybe four,” Tony says to his wife. “It’s the only concept that’s going to help both you and me stay alive.”
In an essay on Sorrentino’s oeuvre at The London Magazine blog, George Hull argues that Sorrentino’s otherwise accomplished films are marred by the filmmaker’s “persistent failure of nerve.” In IL DIVO, Hull argues, “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.” In THE FAMIILY FRIEND, he “plucks a hideous but fascinating truth from the undercurrents of moral awareness” but then “his hand falters, and he throws it back.” And the final scene of THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, according to Hull, is “emblematic only of Sorrentino’s last-minute capitulations to conventional wisdom.” In other words, Sorrentino is not afraid of moral ambiguities and existential darkness; but he seems to delve in already determined to find his way out. The question, I suppose, is whether Sorrentino—via his characters—earns his way out, or whether, as Hull implies, there is too much of the artist imposing his will upon the works’ final minutes.
In the case of IL DIVO, I think Hull has it exactly wrong: the fact that “the last words are given to Aldo Moro. . . a striking phrase describing Andreotti [as] ‘indifferent, leaden, absent, cocooned in his dark dream of glory,’” does not negate the fascinating portrait, rendered in Sorrentino’s densely exuberant signature style, over the course of the previous 100 minutes. It seems to me that it is not Sorrentino, but the viewer, who may choose to walk away from the film interpreting the ending as a simple either/or position—either Andreotti was a good man, or a bad one—as opposed to the extravagantly destabilizing both/and experience that Sorrentino has crafted. As A.O. Scott wrote in the NY Times, Sorrentino has specialized in “character studies of specifically Italian dysfunction, in which surrealism becomes a form of verisimilitude in its own right. . . hyperbolic, garishly theatrical and rigorously faithful to the historical record—completely unbelievable and pretty much all true.”
With regard to THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, on the other hand, Hull may have a point: in Sorrentino’s English-language debut (produced by the Weinstein Company), there is a disappointing feeling at the very end of the film that he has made an American movie, about an American rock star, going on an American road trip, and in the end having a good old-fashioned epiphany demonstrated via hair cut and costume change. (As for THE FAMILY FRIEND, I regret that I have not yet seen it: pre-2008 Sorrentino films have yet to be released, in any watchable form, in the US.)
But in the novel, Sorrentino returns to his mode of hyperbolic verisimilitude: having fled Italy and his life of debauchery for Brazil, Tony passes 20 years in a kind of cartoonish fast-forward. By some absurdist Rip Van Winkle-esque quirk, when he returns, Tony literally has no idea what’s happened in Italy over the past two decades. His former bandmates fill him in on what’s happened to Rita, an acquaintance with whom he had shared a complex and authentic moment, years before:
That pokered-up rummy playing friend of yours, Rita Formisano, one day she opened the window and threw herself out of the fifth-floor window in her housedress. The awning of the fruit vendor downstairs broke her fall, so it didn’t kill her, but now she’s a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair for life. . . Her son, Alberto, isn’t even thirty years old and he’s been arrested three times: pandering and procurement of prostitution.
And, when he goes to visit the last truly beautiful woman he knew and loved, Antonella, he finds her
deranged and delirious, bucking and tossing the words she speaks in a rodeo of some new and incomprehensible grammar, scattered headlong by psychopharmaceuticals, swollen like a weather balloon, ravaged by irregular corpulence, humiliated by varicose veins and stretch marks that look like stab wounds. . .
Rita, Alberto, and Antonella meant something to Tony, and the reader has come to care about them; the delivery of their brutal fates feels perfectly nervy. There is beauty, and there is sorrow, vitality and deterioration. There is really no such thing as better or worse, no use in being sentimental. Late is not better than never, late is late. And, as it turns out, youth and age—like beauty and ugliness, greatness and relentlessness—have a lot in common.
I discover in the night that old age and youth possess extraordinary, unexpected points of contact. Like all great pains and sorrows. Old age and youth focus relentlessly on sorrow and melancholy. With the same intensity. With blind vigor.
Through Tony, and through all his unlovely aging males, Sorrentino seems to suggest that no matter where we are in life’s journey, there is the extraordinary, the intense, the relentless, the unexpected: for the old and for the young, greatness awaits us. Sonya Chung is the author of the novel Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and founding editor of Bloom.
homepage photo credit: Gianni Diforiti