'The Great Beauty' Director Talks Rome and Giraffes

The Great Beauty, one of this year's Best Foreign Language Film nominees, is a positively beguiling tale of Rome, artistic pursuit, and decadence, and we talked to director and writer Paolo Sorrentino to try to learn more about it. 

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The Great Beauty, one of this year's Best Foreign Language Film nominees, is a positively beguiling tale of Rome, artistic pursuit and decadence, and we talked to director and writer Paolo Sorrentino to try to learn more about it.

The movie follows 65-year-old journalist and one-time novelist Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo) as he wanders around Rome, a city with which he has become disillusioned. "The best people in Rome are the tourists," he says. He goes to wild parties complete with garishly made up women, interviews an obnoxious performance artist, begins a relationship with a stripper, and ultimately meets a saintly nun called Sister Maria. Along the way, Sorrentino paints a picture of the city that's both beautiful, mysterious, and garish. His Rome sometimes seems to exist in a dream state. At one point, Jep comes across a giraffe. A magician tells him he is able to make the giraffe disappear. The New York Times' Manohla Dargis called the movie "deliriously alive" and said that with the work Sorrentino has "not only returned to Italy, he has also taken on its past and how it weighs on the present and future."

We talked to Sorrentino via a translator about Rome, his wild party scenes, and that giraffe.

I know you're from Naples. Why did you choose to explore Rome in this film? 

It is a city where I've lived for seven years and I still look at it with the eyes of a lover, of a tourist. It is the capital of Italy, and it is the place things happen so it is representative of Italy as such. I looked at it with the eyes of someone who came from a provincial town, and is now in the capital. So a Neapolitan in Rome.

Can you talk about the inspiration for Jep as a character? Why make him a writer? 

I chose to make him a journalist because as such I would be able to enter into several different worlds or environments or circles. People that  I wanted to talk about. He is disillusioned about life and his world because he is a man of a certain age, who has acquired a knowledge of life and he is tired of it, tired of high society. So he asks himself questions, which he tries to solve throughout the film.

Have you had any experiences specifically that have inspired some of the outlandish scenes and scenarios that we see in the film? 

The inspiration for the film was the observation that I was able to make of Rome over the past few years, when I moved here for work initially. I am, as I said, from a provincial town, from Naples, and that world that I found myself immersed in, which I found fascinating in terms of this lifestyle. Those decadent, outlandish parties have been happening all over town over the past few years. I find that they have a certain kind of sad charm for me and that's what I wanted to talk about.

Can you talk about filming that opening party scene? Were those very choreographed? 

It was a very complex scene, we shot it over three different nights. The choreography component was very significant. Many of the extras were professional dancers. We had a choreographer that set up the entire thing. It was the opening scene for the movie, and we wanted to make sure we were setting the stage right in terms of what the theme of the entire movie was going to be.

There are a number movies this year with lavish party scenes:  The Wolf of Wall StreetThe Great Gatsby, and this film. Have you seen the other party scenes? 

Yes, I did see both movies, and I found that The Wolf of Wall Street is an absolute masterpiece, and The Great Gatsby had wonderful party scenes. I really appreciated both of those movies.

I was wondering if you could talk about some of the symbols in the film. For instance, the sea Jep sees over his bed or the giraffe he finds in Rome alongside a magician. Are they supposed to represent something in Jep's life? Or are they supposed to be mysterious to us?  

The sea was a visual trick that I used to talk in memory. The protagonist thinks back about his teen years and the first girl that he fell in love with. I needed a way to visualize this memory without using the flashback. The idea of projecting the sea on the ceiling was a storytelling device that I used in order not to use the classic trick of a flashback and make it more poetic.

The giraffe is an animal, who because of its size and its weirdness, I find mysterious. So in order to talk about the mysterious nature of those places of old Rome and the surprise that the city evokes, I thought it would be a very good message. Rome is a city where one could have the experience of seeing a magician making a giraffe disappear.

The Colosseum is very present in the film, as is the Piazza Navona. Can you talk about the specific elements of Roman architecture you wanted to highlight? 

The choice of a specific location of architecture elements wasn't all that premeditated. I allowed myself to be guided by what I felt during location scouting. There were some places that I found more stimulating than others. I didn't have a specific outline of places I wanted to include or one place I prefer to another, I adopted an attitude which was the same that the main character has when he was wandering around Rome at night, a flaneur attitude, someone who just wanders around the city at leisure. I allowed myself to be seduced by places, and I selected places I found more fascinating, monumental, and more stimulating to me. But there wasn't a pre-set criterion.

Sister Maria is such an enigmatic character. How does she relate to both the representation of religion in the story and Jep? 

The protagonist in the film goes through a crisis connected to the emptiness of the world around him, and when things seem to be devoid of meaning, a natural destination for human beings is to try to find this meaning in spirituality. That's why in the last part of the movie the main character ends up meeting a Cardinal and then a nun who is about to become a saint. Both these religious figures are not necessarily able to provide answers, the nun, however, does say very simple thing to him, which, in their simplicity turns out to be exactly what he needs in order to find the essence of his truth.

Why the flamingos that come to Jep's balcony when Sister Maria is there? 

That wasn't a symbol as such. It's just that I find those flamingos to be very beautiful animals, and I wanted to associate a moment of pure beauty to that character of the nun.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.