After almost fifteen years, ‘R.’, Paolo Sorrentino’s dog, seemed tired of rolling around in the grass. For a few days, he didn’t eat, then he stopped drinking, and finally, his eyes opened to observe a world slipping away, in that melancholy stage of passing that makes each farewell a scene of pitying looks. The veterinarian was called in, the time of preventative pain came, and when everything seemed lost, and the spot of his resting place was agreed, ‘R.’ woke up. He pricked his ears, wagged his tail, he even trotted—but demonstrated that even in the endgame, there is no survival instinct capable of overcoming mourning.
Paolo Sorrentino knows that feeling, because he went through it all. In his last film, he told the most personal of sorrows, and brought to life a period destined for memory or to be forgotten. But the film doesn’t reside in a reality of sociological themes, nor unnecessary doodles and superfluous words. His favourite writer Celine argues that there is no such thing as an “intelligent vanity,” and Sorrentino agrees: “I can never take myself seriously, and I distrust those who do. I was recently sitting on the wall on which I spent my boyhood, a stone’s throw from my house. No one dares to take themselves seriously in that place, and I try to keep that same attitude. Some people call it cazzeggio there—a little lightness, a little emptiness. I don’t know how else to define it, but I know that if I hear that word, I get a shiver, and if someone ever asks me for advice, I scrutinise them, confused, and reply: ‘are you sure you’ve asked the right person?’”
As Blake teaches, you have to imitate your art in reality. Never try to explain what you love to other people, because as Paolo’s beloved Talking Heads sing, ‘Some things can never be spoken’. Certain feelings cannot be pronounced, and it’s best not to show all your cards. When a letter arrived from the Banco di Napoli, offering him work as a young man, Paolo Sorrentino buried it in a drawer.
Then there are his beginnings in cinema, and in production, in which he recalls “disasters and naivety”. He was once entrusted with some physical film: “and I, who had known about it for days, but didn’t understand its importance, left it in an unlocked car.” By chance, he found it later in his pocket. He then used it as a way to enter a group—all of whom already recognised that, at the top, there is only loneliness. “My mother used to say, ‘That boy just sits in a room and doesn’t bother anyone’. I’m not a misanthrope and when the company is right, I’m glad to be with them. But I don’t rely on it. I feel happy in my own company. It’s good for the imagination, to write, to dream of stories that may never see the light of day. But I know that solitude offers the freest space of all.” Through solitude, Paolo is a child again. “Not being a complete adult gives me a very interesting perspective on life: the difficulty is in making other adults realise you are not one of them.”
Cinema is like a potion. It alters the contours. It makes one’s boundaries unstable, even when heavily guarded: “It is strange to move through this world thinking about cinema. If you describe your day to me, I’ll only focus on what can be fruitfully produced in cinematic terms, and I lose interest in the daily struggles. A director is fortunate. We can give harmony to that which is shapeless—make the sublime and the unravelling, two things tragically separated in life, meet.” Sorrentino is especially curious about doubt. “There is nothing more that interests me than the doubt, uncertainty, and melancholy in how men and women debate. In there, I find my way of storytelling.”
His first short film, almost a full film (“Film is a big word. Let’s say a ‘filmetto’—only about two or three people in the world make films.”) fell from the sky on an idle Sunday: “At film school, I dressed my classmates as Marx, Nietzsche and Jesus. The theme of the Bellaria Film Festival that year was ‘God’.” And so it can’t be true, as [philosopher] Emil Cioran says, that “…Men are divided into categories, those who seek the meaning of life without finding it, and those who have found it without looking,” because I suspect Sorrentino belongs in neither category. “I believe that knowing too much about yourself, and life’s meaning, can be dangerous. For this reason, I also get bored of deep topics. Being distracted is something I’m good at. I prefer to be affectionate toward my superficial side, and try to understand things at the time they’re meant to be understood,” he says. “And if the moment comes late, and with a slight anachronism? Even better. When you arrive late to conclusions, that means you arrived there yourself, free from any conditioning.” Paolo claims that these late conclusions offer some relief. “Now, I try to trust more of what I actually feel, and that it is truly liberating. There was a time when it was different. I was restless. Now, I’m more pacified, but for years I wasn’t. I was at war. As soon as I finished one job, I had to raise the bar and throw myself headlong into the next creative ‘bulimia’ which, today, I recognise as a danger,” he says. “Because to strive for something is tiring. It represents an endless conflict. Those who are at war in this way never realise it, but deep down, they always long for it.” From this war, there is only one trench he won’t tear down: his irony. Paolo Sorrentino will defend it to the end.
One evening, at dinner more than ten years ago, he described his dream to me: “I would like to stop doing interviews,” he said, breaking the silence of a summer evening made motionless by the endless chirping of cicadas. Smiling, he added: “A lot of nonsense is said, things that maybe never happened. [The critic] Giorgio Manganelli argues that an author, when he creates, remains unknown even to himself. Beside him is another self that holds his hand, but whose existence he ignores. When I review something I have written, I find it hard to believe I wrote it myself. This is the reason I don’t like interviews. They question things I have done and said, many of which I tend to forget about.”
Maybe one day, the interviews will fade away, “because now, at more than fifty-years-old,” he adds, “I came to the truth that Toni Servillo’s character [Jep Gambardella] remarks on in La grande bellezza: “The most important thing I discovered a few days after turning sixty-five, is that I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do.”” Gambardella still has thirteen more years on Paolo, but the idea is the same. “I discovered something that everyone learns as they get older: with age, you lose interest in the things that seemed more important when you were younger.” Don’t think that he’s being negligent or lazy (he likes to consider himself that way, however). Paolo Sorrentino sleeps little, wakes up early, and fills up yellow sheets of paper with notes, scenes, and suggestions. He works a lot, and he believes that if the film gets its message across, there’s not much more to explain. “I think that almost nothing can be really explained. A director must not explain, nor judge, nor try to teach. He just has to tell.”
In his future plans, there is another story about Naples, because everything started there. Through memories, nostalgia, and by telling his own biography, there are strong connections. “Writing for the cinema means to set the stage for one’s own world,” he says, and the implication, like Titta Di Girolamo’s warning in La conseguenze dell’amore is that the world must be filled. “The worst thing that can happen to a man who spends plenty of time alone is that he lacks imagination. Life, already boring and repetitive, becomes a deathly spectacle in the absence of fantasy” he sighs. But that is not true in your case, Paolo—and nor will it ever be.
Malcolm Pagani is an Italian writer and columnist, renowned for his work in Vanity Fair Italia, and the country’s premier newspapers. He is also currently Editorial Director at Tenderstories Productions.