Sitting down to view Frederico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” which translates as the “the good life,” or “the sweet life,” and duly noting the physical beauty of the Italian locations and the famously good-looking actors, particularly lead Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Eckberg, one fully expects the internal struggle experienced by Mastroianni’s journalist, Rubini, to come down squarely on the side of the dazzlingly fun and routinely ribauld lifestyle of the glitterati whom he accompanies around town, leaving the stifling domesticity of his home-life behind. As Felllini’s film concludes, however, one is awakened to the emptiness Rubini feels. Yes, these are beautiful people enjoying life; that it is all a superficial veneer behind which nothing of substance lies, however, provides the title “La Dolce Vita” its essential irony. It is in this context or vein that one views the films of Paolo Sorrentino, particularly “Il Divo: La spettacolare vita di Guillio Andreotti” and “This Must be The Place.” “Il Divo” is, of course, a biographical depiction of former Italian prime minister Guillio Andreotti, whose turbulent periods in office (he served as prime minister on three occasions and as minister of interior and of defense during other periods) included allegations of close ties to the Sicilian Mafia and of ordering the murder of a journalist (acquitted on appeal by the nation’s supreme court).
Political intrigue in an Italian government, of course, is nothing new, or particularly alarming. Sorrentino’s interest in the subject of this particular politician, who died in May 2013, lies undoubtedly in Andreotti’s enduring cynicism regarding politics, and the numbness he exemplified towards the uglier parts of Italy’s political scene. In one scene, Sorrentino quotes Andreotti as saying, “Thinking ill of your fellow man is a sin, but you have guessed right.” It is that cynicism and moral obtuseness that provides the common thread through Fellini’s and Sorrentino’s films. If Rubini belatedly awakens to the spiritual emptiness around him, than Cheyenne, the former rock star at the center of “This Must be The Place” is the walking embodiment of that emptiness. Retiring from the music scene following the suicides of two teenagers inspired by one of his songs, Cheyenne walks the earth like a dead man. Taking up the challenge of tracking down the fugitive war criminal who tormented his father, from whom he’s been estranged for 30 years, Cheyenne encounters the former Nazi prison guard’s daughter. Nothing says depravity and spiritual death quite like the Holocaust. In their conversation, Cheyenne concedes the resignation with which he has conducted his life since that fateful day 20 years before when the suicides occurred:
Cheyenne: You know what the problem is... Rachel?
Cheyenne: Without realizing it, we go from an age where we say: "My life will be that" to an age where we say: "That's life."
Similarly, in an exchange with a young, aspiring musician, Cheyenne asks the boy,
“What do you call yourselves?
Steven: The Pieces of Shit.
Cheyenne: That's a really good choice.
Steven: You're fuckin' right it is, yeah! It took us 6 months to come up with it, besides it's exactly the right name for this moment in history.”
“This Must be The Place,” the title adapted from a song by David Byrne of the Talking Heads, who plays himself in the film, provides a completely bleak portrait not just of Cheyenne, but of society in general. The cynicism and bleakness prevalent in Sorrentino’s and in Fellini’s films is unlikely to be a mistake. In an interview with the New York Times, Sorrentino had this to say about the relationship between his work and that of the late Fellini:
“It was not my intention to quote or to imitate Fellini, but I know that the idea of this movie worked in the same context as some of his, but 50 years later. 'La Dolce Vita' is a film that tries to understand the meaning of life in a world that is losing this meaning. That is a sensation I can feel right now in Rome, the sense that life is futile, that you can’t find a real sense of purpose. . . For me, Fellini is the most important director, my point of reference. So such comparisons are flattering.” [“Paolo Sorrentino on ‘The Great Beauty’ and Italian Alienation,” New York Times, December 4, 2013, linked below]
Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” is the director’s most recent work, and provides a dispiriting view of a country, his country, in moral and social decline. The comparisons to Fellini, as noted, are not accidental.