I have now watched Paolo Sorrentino’s extraordinary film three times. It is one of the most striking, beautiful and poignant films I have seen in a very long time and a truly worthy successor to the greatness of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita — which it both references and echoes.
It is hard to do justice to the Proustian beauty of this film. Many frames act as artworks in themselves — the moment dawn rises over a deserted roof-top nightclub, the artificial sun of an orange neon Campari sign set in the centre of a lightening sky; the swoop of a flock of birds; three elegant figures at a balustrade in the crepuscular dark. And it is not only individual moments: the swooping, pivoting camerawork envelops us and transports us between vignettes of reality in the sweeping and fragmentary manner that our gaze travels over the world.
At its centre is Jep Gambardella, first met during his bacchic 65th birthday party on a Roman roof-top nightclub in the second scene (the first is a gnomic and virtuoso opening of movement and music). Author of one brilliant book forty years earlier, Jep has turned his talents to becoming the “King” of the Roman “High Life”. He has left his writing, and regularly derides his “novelette”, using his talents for occassional culture pieces in one of Rome’s remaining serious newspapers. He is an aged Marcello of La Dolce Vita, his talents, energy and sensibility given over to listless sensuality and a trivial celebrity.
I call it Proustian for a reason. Sorrentino has made a film which captures better than almost any the fleeting presence of reality in the instants when our attention is given to it, the moments that form the framed images of memory, the moments that somehow live on in when all around them has faded away. An instant in a nightclub pulsating with music, a nun picking oranges in the early morning glimpsed through the bars of a garden, birds wheeling in the bluest of skies bisected by a fading contrail. It is a film of the senses so rich and strong that we are borne away in them as the characters are.
At the same time, like Proust, it is also of the mind: the madeleine is so powerful precisely because it is experienced not just as it is but in the context of the great web of associations that is memory. So too, this is a film about memory and the past.
Jep is constantly and forcibly reminded of the past. The central emotional event of the film is his discovery of the death of his first (and perhaps only) love Elisa de Santis, told to him in the rain by her grieving husband. An event that is the trigger for repeated flashbacks to their original meetings forty plus years earlier. It is also there whenever we travel through the darkened streets or walk the palazzos of Rome, seeing their fading and deserted beauty, the loneliness and isolation of their occupants.
Sorrention has also given us something powerful, sad and funny. The repartee runs with a wit and weary wisdom that reminds one — but surpasses — the brilliant mid-period Allen of Husbands and Wives and Crimes and Misdemeanours. It is serious and sad and a divertissement all at the same time. At its heart is time, and the passage of time. Of a disappointment and weariness but also a delight in beauty and existence. A death-jestering mentality in the face of this bewildering existence and the fundamentality of death, a determination that humour and serious unseriousness is all we have to protect ourselves from the vagaries of the world and our own inevitable mortality (a regular and central presence in the film — in the death of Elisa, in the suicide of Viola’s unstable son, and most of all that of Ramona).
But also a sense of the trategy that in doing so, in losing ourselves in triviality and “nothings”, in running away from commitment, we give up the one precious opportunity we have: to live with purpose. Just as each image passes away, usually to disappear, occassionally to be caught in the net of memory, so too we will pass away, and where we have gone little of us will remain. That is our greatest tragegy and the well-spring of our greatest beauty and it is to that truth that this film stands as testament.