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Paolo Sorrentino - In The Shadow of Fellini

Stephen Murphy makes the case for Paolo Sorrentino being the Federico Fellini of modern world cinema.

Federico Fellini was one of those mammoth figures in world cinema, on par with Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, who so completely dominated the national film industry from which he came, that every director out of Italy thereafter is both indebted and endlessly compared to him.

“Carnivalesque” is the long agreed upon term which sums up Fellini’s cinema, an obsession with surrealism, parties and unusual costumes that became more and more pronounced in his career as he distanced himself from his neorealist roots.

Fellini’s was a particularly sixties form of social revolution. While the Hollywood studio system was scrambling and failing miserably to catch up with the change that was occurring in music and literature at that time, countries like Italy and France were churning out dozens of films that were exactly in tune with the change in sensibilities that swept over the Western world.

This change began as one of social revolution, where young people took back control of their own lives and sexuality. But as it developed it became more and more clear that it was largely another form of patriarchy, which emerged to replace the decrepit patriarchy of the post-war years.

Fellini was at the forefront of this; he quickly put away the social realist works he was doing with his wife Giulietta Masina, for the perspective embodied by Marcello Mastroianni, that of a world in which the society was just beginning to unfurl for him with all the creative, financial and sexual promise of a new dawn.

This age of promise grew into the disillusionment of anti-war protests in the late ‘60s, then into social decay in the ‘70s. Then a new young generation took over, and the baby boomers faded.

Paolo Sorrentino’s cinema picks up with the baby boomers fifty years after La Dolce Vita. The focus on masculinity lives on from the early ‘60s, as the obsession with youth – female youth in particular. But now the baby boomers are in the same position as those whose archaic ideas and socially conservative interpretation of the world was slowly dying out.

This manifests itself in many of Sorrentino’s characters like the unfulfilled Cheyenne, or the old school power-grabbing Giulio Andreotti. But it is most evident in The Great Beauty’s Jep Gambardella, who still embraces those early ideals, but think society has lost track them.

While Sorrentino may refute his connection with Fellini, it’s helpful to understand Sorrentino’s characters in the context of those who appeared in La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. Jep Gambardella’s art critic is basically La Dolce Vita’s Marcello fifty years later, still as insatiable as he was in his youth, but now finding the world is no longer ready to satisfy all his desires at a moment’s notice.

For a director as informed in his directorial process by music as Sorrentino is, it’s no wonder that his films feel so much like the decay of the ‘60s, when pop music was in its prime. The world today can’t compare with the idea of that long gone age, and so it consist of meaningless carnivals and parties, unimportant artistic endeavours and vain power grabs. Either because there’s nothing to rebel against anymore, or the only thing left to rebel against is the status quo his generation is now a part of.


 - Stephen Murphy