Paolo Sorrentino: Am I Missing Something?

As is often the case with auteurs, their work can be off-putting and confusing to the viewer unless one happens to know the “key” to understanding them. In the case of Kubrick, the “key” is his myriad visual clues and Brechtian presentation; with the Coens, it is their biting sense of humour and appreciation of life’s apparent absurdity. However, an auteur I have struggled with, and for whom almost no one seems to have the “key”, is Paolo Sorrentino.

Few auteurs have achieved in their entire lives what Sorrentino has achieved in twelve years. He has won the 2013 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (The Great Beauty); six of his seven theatrically-released films have competed at Cannes; he has worked with an enviable number of Hollywood heavyweights (including Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Paul Dano in Youth; Sean Penn and Frances McDormand in This Must Be The Place); and he has generally received critical acclaim for his work.

It is easy to see why his work has been so acclaimed. Sorrentino manages to get strong performances from his casts (Sean Penn’s mostly overlooked leading role in This Must Be The Place is, in my opinion, one of the best performances of the last ten years), and he is also, without a doubt, one of the most cinematic directors working today. By cinematic, I mean that his films contain such a grand variety of the big, the small, the static and the moving that they justify their presentation on a cinema screen (I will dedicate an essay to the criteria of the cinematic in the near future).

However, I can’t be alone in thinking that his films are remarkably indulgent and incoherent. His style may be cinematic, but it isn’t necessarily good (no more than being an auteur is an assurance with quality; another future essay).

Sorrentino’s concern with making each shot as cinematic as possible yields remarkably varied and incoherent results. For instance: one of the greatest shots from TMBTP is of a woman handing a telephone to someone off-screen, with the phone in extreme close-up. The shot is cinematic and dynamic, but it also works because the call is of great significance to the character. However, one of the few shots that has endured in my mind from The Consequences of Love is a fast dolly from an extreme close-up of a hand on a banister to a wide of the character climbing the stairs. This shot is absolutely inconsequential and meaningless to both the character and the audience, and, unfortunately, it isn’t an isolated incident.

Sorrentino insists on making key moments and padding equally dynamic, and this results in an exhausting viewing experience, increased chances of an arbitrary shot lodging in the audiences’ minds as opposed to a pivotal one, and gives the sense that Sorrentino actually doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

After having watched Youth a few months ago, and still wondering if Sorrentino was an incompetent stylist or not, I happened upon this excellent video by one of my favourite YouTubers, Doug Walker (the entire video is worth a watch, but the key points are at 3:21-4:33 and 8:42-10:30).

After watching this video, I realised that Sorrentino’s films didn’t make any sense to me, but they definitely worked. I was upset by the ending to Consequences, uplifted by This Must Be The Place, and Youth made me stop and admire the colour of the dusk sky as I walked home from the cinema. So, the “key” to Sorrentino is to not pay attention to the logic of his films, but allow his dynamic camera and technique to stir your emotions.

However, Sorrentino is no Kubrick; while Kubrick’s films invite endless philosophical discussion as well as an emotional response, Sorrentino can generate a strong emotional response but leaves little to ponder over afterwards. So, is Sorrentino a good director or a bad director? I’d say the best way to think of Sorrentino is as a creator of high-class cinematic junk-food: provides little substance or long-term nourishment, but is pleasing in the moment. While that may be reason enough for self-proclaimed cinephiles to brush him off, even cinephiles can allow a bit of junk-food in their film diet, and it’s consoling to know that one’s junk-food is cooked by an expert chef and comes with the Cannes seal of approval.

The trailer for my favourite Sorrentino film, This Must Be the Place.


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