'The Great Beauty' director Paolo Sorrentino
'The Great Beauty' director Paolo Sorrentino
Toni Servillo in "The Great Beauty."
Toni Servillo in "The Great Beauty."

I first discovered the cinema of Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino in 2008 when I saw "Il Divo" at Cannes, which stars the incandescent Toni Servillo as former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Even though the biopic did a deep dive into decades of arcane Machiavellian politics in Italy, the movie was utterly accessible because Servillo carried you through. My second encounter with Sorrentino was also at Cannes, with his first English-language film "This Must be the Place," which features a riveting performance from Sean Penn as an aging expat rocker who returns to his roots in America after his father dies. But the movie didn't quite come together--Sorrentino's English has definitely improved since then.

When I spoke to the filmmaker about his latest triumph, eventual foreign Oscar-winner "The Great Beauty" (TOH! review here), he did have a translator on hand, but he handled some of answers himself. The movie stars Servillo as a jaded Rome journalist with writer's block whose observations about the gorgeously decadent culture around him cut with a knife. He is a social but lonely man who finds himself moved and inflamed by an unexpected relationship with a beautiful and mysterious woman. Sorrentino's effective use of Rome as a stunning visual setting has raised comparisons to such Fellini films as "La Dolce Vita." The director, who is 43, begs to argue. 

Next up, he's working in English again with Michael Caine in "In the Future" which starts shooting in May.

This must be the place poster

Anne Thompson: "Il Divo" led to Sean Penn, who approached you at Cannes in 2008 when he was jury president. You came up with "This Must Be The Place" for him. That must have been a tricky challenge because you were coming to America and didn't speak English. Talk about your journey on that film.

Paolo Sorrentino: For me it was a great adventure because I grew up with American cinema, so for me to work in the United States, in the middle of America, in the midwest, in forgotten places, that was my first time. Before doing the movie, I saw just New York and San Francisco. The first time I came to LA was after "Il Divo" so I didn't know the states. For me it was a great adventure and also, I was very eager to work with somebody like Sean Penn. He's a great actor and I was very eager to face a stronger personality. It was a challenge that I needed to do. In my experience, of all the people that I've met in this world of cinema, Sean Penn is the one who best knows cinema from every direction. He's a smart person, he has a knowledge of cinema -- not of movies, but of the practical things of film. I wasn't even aware of how much he was teaching me.

I admire "The Great Beauty," from the amazing opening party sequence onward; was that the most challenging scene to shoot?

It was challenging because there were probably 300 people. I had a choreographer to work with a few of the dancers. It was a scene that was created with the impression that I've had from the people themselves. It was really the actors and the extras who defined themselves without being overly aware of how it was constructed.

Did you use long takes? 

I like to do long, unseparated takes, and I have many of them. But in this one, there are cuts. I didn't have the chance to do a longer shot until the end of the movie. Before the titles, it's a six or seven-minute shot on the Tiber River.

Every movie has one crucial sequence, the one that is the center of the film. Is there one for you in this film?

In this movie, the crucial moments are the beginning and the end. The beginning, with the scene of the dancer, summarizes the movie. The end is the turning point, when he starts to think about what he wants to write. Also the philosophy of the movie is in the end. The most important thing that I want to say. The main character is remembering the girl when he was young. That's a moment, for me, that is very crucial.

What do you think the movie is trying to say?

Anything. Too many things. The movie is trying to say that everybody can find a form of beauty in all the moments of his life and also in the moments where there is the vulgarity, the squalor. If you try to go out for a moment in your life, you can see the beauty everywhere in your own life.

Talk about the great scene where the woman challenges the journalist about writing a second book and he destroys her.

It's an uncomfortable scene, where everyone is trying to use their words to fight against hypocrisy without really understanding that hypocrisy is something that we need in order to live together.

You've worked with Toni Servillo in many of your movies. Is he your alter-ego in this film, as the writer and the artist?

In this movie, probably yes. Not in "Il Divo." A lot of the reasons that move me to write or make a movie are based upon a deconstruction of the relationship, or lack of a relationship, with my father. Toni, as an actor, is a way for me to explore that relationship with my father across these films, specifically because he has that age distance. He's kind of like a paternal figure. Sevillo is 54 and I am 43, so it's a tough question to answer. When I psychoanalyze myself too much, then I start to get scared and not actually explore it as far as I'd like to. I transfer a lot the analysis of the relationship that I had with my father into Toni.