Youth Gone Wild: The Early Films Of Paolo Sorrentino

As Paolo Sorrentino's new film, Youth, is released in the cinemas, James Ubaghs picks out three of the most interesting of the Italian director's early works

The hyper stylized films of Paolo Sorrentino have gained him a wide audience outside of his native Italy. 2008’s Il Divo, an acerbic biopic of the more-than-a-little-bit-dodgy former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti got the ball rolling, and his 2013 best foreign picture Oscar win for The Great Beauty cemented his stature as the pre-eminent Italian cineaste of his day.

Sorrentino is at the polar opposite end of the scale to the neorealists. His films are characterized by bold framing and a highly mobile camera, which goes every which way as it chronicles the often baroque excess on display. His cinema thrillingly revels in the artificiality of the medium.

At times the violence and debauchery, as well as the tasteful electro-pop that often soundtracks his films, make them feel like an oblique take on the cinema of cool, albeit one where the protagonist is almost always a depressed middle aged man. At other times his elliptical take on narrative makes him feel like a sort of bubble-gum Terrence Malick, rooted in the despairing cynicism of Berlusconi-era Italy as opposed to the wonder of the natural world. There’s plenty of self-conscious Fellini and Antonioni references in Sorrentino’s films, but all the constituent reference points build back up to a talent that feels wholly its own. It doesn’t always work. Just look at Sorrentino’s perplexing English language debut, This Must Be the Place, featuring Sean Penn in full I Am Sam mode playing an ageing goth rocker on a Nazi hunting quest across America.

Admittedly, typing that out makes it sound thrilling. Even when Sorrentino fails he fails big. He’s never generic or boring even at his worst. Sorrentino’s early Italian films remain comparatively under-seen. A revisit finds them largely more grounded that his later work but still very much the product of the same brilliant, stylish – at times exhausting – talent.

One Man Up(2001)

Sorrentino’s debut One Man Up is a far more restrained and low key affair than his later work, but there are plenty of flashes of the bravura to come. The film is an offbeat dramedy following the downward trajectory of two public figures, both named Antonio Pisapia, in early 1980’s Italy.

Toni Servillo, Sorrentino’s brilliant muse, plays Tony Pisapia. He’s a louche and vulgar pop singer at the top of his game, brought down by his monstrous appetites. Andrea Renzi plays Antonio Pisapia, a melancholic professional footballer who likewise suffers a series of misfortunes. The oblique connection between the dual protagonists remains hazy throughout.

While not nearly as exuberant as the work to come there’s still plenty of verve on display. A particular highlight is a Goodfellas style tracking shot of Tony revelling in nightclub debauchery and demonstrating a rather awe inspiring level of lecherous gusto. It’s a joy to see the brilliant Servillo – usually cast as sardonic introverts – play such a loud mouthed and disgusting braggart. This is a man who accidentally sleeps through his own father’s funeral and doesn’t feel an iota of embarrassment about it.

One Man Up resembles later Sorrentino films in its loose and episodic structure complete with frequent oblique digressions that serve no immediately clear purpose, but there’s far less decadent stylisation to carry you through. Like some of Sorrentino’s later work it never entirely comes together. There’s enough here to make it a promising debut feature, but the best was to come.

The Consequences Of Love (2004)

The Consequences of Love merits rediscovery, and indeed may well be Sorrentino’s masterpiece. Tony Servillo again stars this time as Titta di Girolamo, a mysterious, intensely introverted business man living out an odd non-existence in a Swiss hotel. He lives a claustrophobic life of deadening routine, as he says early on via voice-over: "the only complicated thing he possesses is his name".

The Consequences Of Love is the only Sorrentino film to have a significant sense of narrative drive. The mystery of who Titta di Girolamo is serves as the hook of the film, as needless to say there’s more going on beneath the service of this passive – to the point of being barely alive – businessman. There’s a focus here, both thematically and narratively, that makes this concise, highly idiosyncratic film hit like a bag of bricks.

Every surrealist detail and odd encounter pays off, and all are rooted in tangible character details. It’s the only Sorrentino film to show such composure, and as joyous as the sprawling excess of The Great Beauty is, it’s a shame he hasn’t made more films like The Consequences Of Love.

This is a neo-noir, or perhaps to be more accurate a neo-giallo. Titta has a criminal past, and of course a woman eventually becomes involved. Past moral transgressions and tragic character flaws can’t be outrun, and it all leads to a less than ideal outcome for Servillo’s exceptionally reserved character.

It’s all approached from a brilliantly oblique and askew angle. It’s a crime story about a man trapped in a Beckett-like purgatory of loneliness, inaction and passivity that still barrels along with an irresistible sense of Tarantino cool. Central is Servillo’s performance. Indeed it’s puzzling that the man does not have a bigger reputation outside of Italy. His character is a man of few actions and even fewer words, and he remains utterly compelling and charismatic throughout. It’s a tour de force of acting minimalism. Every arched eyebrow speaks mountains. Every sigh and rolled eye hints at the repressed history and emotion waiting to crack through the granite surface.

In Sorrentino and Servillo’s hands a middle class, middle aged man smoking cigarettes and disdainfully ignoring or sardonically insulting everyone he comes across is as riveting to watch as any old Tony Montana wannabe. Of course things develop from the initial glacial image we have of Titta di Girolomo. It would be a shame to spoil it, but it’s fair to say that this existentialist meditation/crime story flows along effortlessly on the way to its masterful and emotive ending.

The Family Friend (2006)

The Family Friend may be Sorrentino’s most cynical work, and his films are usually deeply cynical. His miserable protagonists experience odd bursts of sentimentality but it almost always ends badly. Yet they also often show an odd sort of grace in their venality (or maybe that’s what you get when Toni Servillo plays not all that morally upstanding characters). They’re a hairs breath away from redemption but forever falling short. Even Servillo’s Giulio Andreotti, the mafia linked politician suspected of being behind numerous murders, shows a redeeming side in his rigor mortis stiff but loving relationship with his wife. The protagonist of The Family Friend has no such saving graces.

Giacomo Rizza stars as Geremia De Geremei, a small town tailor who lives in a decrepit flat with his equally decrepit elderly mother. He also operates as a loan shark, telling the friends and family of the clients that he weasels his way into that he is a "friend of the family" helping out. Giacomo Rizza provides a fearlessly ugly portrait of an utterly hideous man.

Geremia’s arm is in a cast that never comes off. He awkwardly scurries from place to place adorned in an ugly coat, while carrying plastic shopping bags hooked onto his protruding cast. As a home-made migraine remedy he wraps a napkin filled with potatoes around his head. He’s a strikingly grotesque figure, but there’s no inner beauty beneath the surface. When me meet Geremia De Geremei he’s purchasing a mail order Romanian bride who promptly flees from him. He doesn’t get any more pleasant as the film progresses.

Geremia is an ugly man, and the world he inhabits isn’t much prettier. Indeed the film is set amongst a fascist-built town on marshland reclaimed during the Mussolini era. The bleak fascist architecture matches the ugliness of the characters that inhabit this world. Of course its still shot with all of Sorrentino’s usual style. A particular highlight is the opening credits where an array of inexplicable and contextless images follow one after the other: a nun buried up to her head in sand as two figures loom over her; a cowboy in a field at dawn; young women playing volleyball in slow motion amidst decrepit fascist architecture. There’s always satisfyingly visceral aesthetic moments to chew on in Sorrentino films, even when the rest of the film fails to entirely work.

It’s a grotesque world, full of grotesque caricatures – Geremia’s victims are for the most part just as petty and unlikeable. Characters can be plenty monstrous and still be compelling – just look at your Patrick Bateman’s and your Tony Soprano’s – but crucially there should be depth and complexity, or at least some wit, to make it worth spending an extended amount of time with irredeemable people. Geremia De Geremei does not pass that threshold. The Family Friend is bold in its level of miserableness, indeed its even subversive in how its superficially ugly protagonist only gets uglier the more you understand him. It also makes it a rather queasy and unpleasant film to sit through.

Youth is out in cinemas now

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