Thursday 18th January 2018,

Lonely Men: An American Encounters Sorrentino

Many thanks to Thessaloniki Film Festival for linking! This post in honor of Il Divo opening in Philadelphia at one of the Ritz theatres.

Cinema loves impenetrable men. Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, a film forever collecting critical largess, proves this. So do other protagonists in other evidently great films, including Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2, not to mention less prestigious action heroes like James Bond, among dozens more and not all of them British. The trope persists: Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men are two recent instantiations. It is so pervasive that similarly opaque female leads become all the more outstanding: from Jean Seberg in Breathless, Tracy Camilla Johns in She’s Gotta Have It to Kate Winslet in The Reader.

From my eyes, Italian and internationally acclaimed film director Paolo Sorrentino is very aware of this history. His films, including Il Divo, now out in limited release, The Family Friend (2006), The Consequences of Love (2004) and L’uomo in più (2001), all focus on lonely often steely men undergoing existential crises. These are among the few of his films available for consumption in the United States (some are not subtitled, not formatted for the US or released on DVD). I’ll join the chorus of critics clamoring for full release of his work, which seems inevitable, given that Il Divo captured the Jury Prize at Cannes, and all three were nominated for the Palme D’Or.

Tony Servillo as Giulio Andreotti in Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo (2008), likely to become Sorrentino masterpiece for its depiction of a man tenaciously trying to contain himself and his power.

Tony Servillo as Giulio Andreotti in Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo (2008), likely to become Sorrentino masterpiece for its depiction of a man tenaciously trying to contain himself and his power.

Why now? Why Sorrentino? He happens to be half the duo of directors causing some critics to declare a revival in Italian cinema – Matteo Garrone is the other – both critically and commercially. The reasons are in the films.

Without a doubt, this Neapolitan director crafts visually arresting films. Il Divo, out recently in theatres and now poised to be his Citizen Kane, lest he direct something more ambitious, is a great film, filled as it is with majestic and arresting shots. Based on the late life of Italian politician and powerbroker Giulio Andreotti, who for decades has held what appears to be every major position in the Italian government, including prime minister, and with strong connections to the mafia, is a notorious figure in the country. Sadly, few know of him here, so for a lay American audience Il Divo may be a vexingly complicated film. It is littered with names and references, nearly all of whom are completely meaningless to those who don’t know the story. The removed Andreotti, well-portrayed by Sorrentino’s apparent muse, Tony Servillo, who has helmed several of his films and also stars in another recent acclaimed Italian film, Gomorrah, is quiet; the audience gets little insight into his psyche or plans. Yet it has been awhile since I saw a film after which I felt the need to see it again, not only to get the story straight but to enjoy it more than the first time. With a clear handle on the plot, the film is near-visionary.

Sorrentino knows how to entertain, provoke and inspire, a feat few directors can achieve at the same time – the most notable and consistently of which is Martin Scorsese, to whom Sorrentino is cousin. With his elegant, swooping tracking shots, sustained close-ups, disorienting angles and expansive color palette, Sorrentino’s films – particularly Il Divo – feel active, even when nothing is happening. I cannot forget a short scene in Il Divo when Andreotti, seemingly tormented by the sins of his past and fearful of his coming future, paces about in the darkness of his own home. He is motionless except the brisk movement of his legs. His pacing is fast, easily deemed insane except for his obvious self-control (is it repression?). It is one of several scenes that give Il Divo a irrational quality – yet another reason to compare Sorrentino to Fellini [1] — yet, in its “poetic reordering of the world,” is visceral enough to deflect accusations of excess. [2]

Sorrentino’s depiction of loneliness, even when surrounded by people, recalls that of Antonioni's La Notte (1961).

Sorrentino’s depiction of loneliness, even when surrounded by people, recalls that of Antonioni's La Notte (1961).

An insomniac leads Sorrentino’s 2004 film, Consequences of Love, a film more appropriate for international audiences, given its simpler narrative. Here, Titta Di Giroiamo (Tony Servillo), channeling Mastroianni in La Notte, is an ex-broker living an imprisoned life. Titta’s closed-in lifestyle, which he has led for 10 years, makes him seem cold and emotionless. Like the couple at the center of La Notte, he is a man “destroyed by the indifference of habit and an impenetrable loneliness.” [3] Indeed, Titta’s solitude slows first half of the film, but it is not dull because, once again, Sorrentino can visually excite. The quiet in the first half is necessary, if only to underscore the subtle yet deep change he will undergo. Throughout the film, we see the life he has constructed (later we find out it was constructed for him) slowly fall apart, he comes undone and his reserve takes on new meaning. It is spectacularly well-crafted. Unlike Il Divo‘s Andreotti, who in the end triumphs in his struggles – in real life, he remains relatively unscathed – Titta is fictional, so his character’s emotional journey is more pronounced, making Consequences of Love a more emotionally rich film, and thus, in my current opinion, a better one.

I do not place all the blame on Sorrentino. Il Divo commands higher prestige because it is political, Machiavellian, notorious and internationally significant. The grandness of Andreotti equals that of Charles Foster Kane. With grandiosity comes austerity, however. Andreotti is given one scene to emote fully, and even then his speech is less an intimate soliloquy than an invective writ large. Consequences is narrowly constructed and personal. There are no more than ten auxiliary characters in Consequences who impact Titta and knowing their names is unnecessary; in Il Divo I lost count. Titta’s life is simple. He lives in a hotel room no bigger than a standard apartment. Andreotti’s house is a Baroque fantasy brimming with self-importance. Fiction allowed Sorrentino to keep his story under control, almost stubbornly simple.

Yet not all of his films are so evidently profound. L’uomo in più, while terrific, approaches simple melodrama, saved by assured directing and a revealing monologue at the end. L’uomo‘s men – hedonist lounge singer Tony and quietly penchant Antonio, kindred brothers of sorts headed inescapably toward destruction – are warmer and more accessible than those of Consequences and Divo. This is intentional, and perhaps the evidence lies in the differences between Tony and Andreotti’s final monologues. At the end of L’uomo, Tony (Tony Servillo) delivers one last “public confession” after he avenges Antonio’s suicide. Andreotti, in Il Divo, also delivers a spirited defense of his moral universe. Tony’s monologue is filmed with a series of slow, rotating tracking shots, easing into a final close-up. Sorrentino’s Andreotti monologue is sharp and visually disjointed, meant to give us unease. Each is appropriate for each movie. Tony ends the film a happy man: one of the last scenes has him rowing his boat away from the police, the sun shining behind him before he jumps in the water, smiling. Andreotti is stoic and emotionless in the end; he lives only to survive and maintain power. There is no sentiment there.

Tony Servillo as Giulio Andreotti in Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo (2008), likely to become Sorrentino masterpiece for its depiction of a man tenaciously trying to contain himself and his power.

Geremia De Geremei is an impenetrable character. Here in The Family Friend's final shot he dons sunglasses at night as if to ward off interpretation.


The Family Friend’s Geremia De Geremei (Giacomo Rizzo), a loan shark who preys on those unfortunate enough to need fast money, also fights against our sentiments. Sorrentino fashions him a hunchback, limping with a heavy coat draped over his broken arm. Geremia doesn’t believe in God and has little regard for marriage; he raped a woman on her wedding day in exchange for lowering her father’s interest rate; he groped the wife of a debtor with him in the next room, merely to fetch her wedding ring hidden in her pocket; women are objects to him, except for his mother, with whom he shares a strange, almost Freudian relationship. He is monstrous, though not inhuman (as he is called and calls himself) because in the end we pity him even if we do not fully understand him. Sadness fuels his usury; he is a man who has stopped believing in his dreams, and when he tries to fulfill them, in all their depravity, he gets burned. He finally questions his existence and his reliance on cynicism. “There is a limit,” he concludes about the “badness” in his life, but “I don’t know.” The Family Friend is closest to Il Divo in tone, focused as it is on a sinister incomprehensible man. It completes the trajectory from L’uomo to Il Divo: his protagonists become increasingly difficult to redeem as the films become ever more complex and intractable.

Few films so clearly announce an auteur. Aside from the fact that Sorrentino writes and directs his movies, his attention to detail and concern for camerawork coax and taunt us toward auteur theory. While I have no personal stake in whether films are authored by the director or by collaborative enterprises, the clear consistency and effectiveness of Sorrentino’s style is self-evident. If anything he is a consummate manager. From his selection of music – variously infectious, trendy, surprising, haunting or whimsical – to his attention to tone, he choreographs his movies well enough to earn his acclaim, even if the credit is shared, as it naturally must be.

Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963).  In his stylistic portrayal of a man who is stranger unto himself, Sorrentino's films recall that of Fellini's masterpiece.

Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963). In his stylistic portrayal of a man who is stranger unto himself, Sorrentino's films recall that of Fellini's masterpiece.

It is easy to compare Sorrentino to canonized Italian directors like De Sica, Fellini and Antonioni. Tony Servillo himself recalls a modern day Mastroianni with more range, encouraging comparisons to the latter two directors. These comparisons are not without merit. Like those greats, Sorrentino never relinquishes control over the images; everything is tightly constructed and the camera well-controlled. [4]  Its a style that works well with stoic and emotionally unavailable male leads: Antonio Ricci in The Bicycle Thief, Marcello Rubini in La Dolce Vita, Giovanni Pontano in La Notte are all versions of the same man, lost and looking but unable to capture their desires. If we don’t know them it’s because they do not want us to. Sorrentino made a smart move when he veered away from the less austere leads of L’uomo in più; his newer films have more heft.

My focus on classic Italian cinema only works to place Sorrentino in historical context. In truth he has much more in common with the more style-driven auteurs working today, including Scorsese, Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar Wai, a familiar list of directors known for combining a concern for shot construction, camera discipline and subtle but effective lighting with solid plotting and memorable protagonists.  Sorrentino’s “emphatic dolley” [5] shots and pans all place him comfortably in conversation with Scorsese and Anderson. Yes, he is among many to exploit the emotive capabilities of such camera tricks, but coupled with his taste for existential drama, it becomes a rare, gripping combination.

Comparisons aside, Sorrentino has already cemented his own place among Europe’s all-star legion of directors. No doubt the critical establishment is waiting with bated breath for the next existential drama he plans to unleash upon the world.


[1] “The domain of the irrational is, for Fellini, the ultimate source of artistic inspiration and creativity.” Bondanella, Peter E. 2002. The films of Federico Fellini. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 113.

[2] Andre Bazin said that of Fellini and realism: “One might say that Fellini is not opposed to realism, any more than he is to neorealism, but rather he achieves it surpassingly in a poetic reordering of the world.” Bazin, Andre. 2004. What is cinema?. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 89.

[3]Bondanella, Peter E. 2001. Italian cinema: from neorealism to the present. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 214.

[4] De Sica too obsessively planned their images, but in ways to conceal “the art that went into its making.” Sorrentino is the opposite. His effort is everywhere on the screen. Marcus, Millicent Joy. 1986. Italian film in the light of neorealism. Princeton University Press, 56-57.

[5] A phrase borrowed from Matt Zoller Seitz. “The Substance of Style, Pt. 2.” Moving Image Source. April 3 2009.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.