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The Life of Paolo

A look back through the films of ‘The Young Pope’ creator Paolo Sorrentino shows that Lenny Berlardo is just the latest in the line of protagonists obsessed with and corrupted by fame and power

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“I don’t use Twitter. I’m a serious person.”

This possibly apocryphal quote is widely attributed to Paolo Sorrentino, the Academy Award–winning Italian writer-director who has become, perhaps improbably and certainly not uncontentiously, his homeland’s most popular and acclaimed contemporary filmmaker. If he did use Twitter, he would know that his new HBO production The Young Pope — the title of which is most assuredly not a metaphor, as it concerns a springy, 40-something pontiff single-handedly lowering the mean age of the papacy — has already become a bona fide meme monster.

If we look past all the jokes (note: It’s totally OK to not look past all the jokes, and in fact all the better to luxuriate in them like a bathtub overflowing with holy water), The Young Pope is a saga about a crossover figure: Not only is Lenny Berlardo (Jude Law) the first American to don the fabled vestments, but he’s also being groomed by pious power brokers to more thoroughly globalize the message of the church within a 21st-century social media landscape. Critics have already started drawing parallels between Law’s “impulsive, conservative vulgarian” and a certain not-so-young president-elect, but Sorrentino’s preoccupation with fame and its trappings predates his move to prime time.

The relationship between power, corruption, and lies and an emergent political new order was developed most memorably in Sorrentino’s 2008 drama biographical drama Il Divo, which won a Jury Prize at Cannes and achieved the international recognition denied to the director’s first three, comparatively smaller-scale films. A nominally fact-based account of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti — a driving force behind Italy’s integration into the European Union and an architect of the country’s economic growth in the 1970s who was also subject throughout his career to criminal prosecution, including facing a charge for murder — the film used a historical setting to critique its present tense. The scenes of Andreotti (played by Sorrentino’s favorite star, Toni Servillo) strutting pridefully through government halls in finely tailored suits surrounded by similarly well-manicured cronies were easily interpreted as a burlesque of Berlusconi-era corruption (they also anticipate the similarly composed images of the ol’ Young Pope doing self-satisfied laps around the Vatican).

A flashy, modish movie about the social and moral ravages of ruling-class decadence, Il Divo was both praised and condemned for its artistic indulgences: “Sorrentino’s hyperactive zoom and crane style fits Il Divo like a power suit,” wrote Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope, “because it swirls around a void.” For critics who had spent the fallow 15 after the death of Federico Fellini looking to anoint a new savior of Italian cinema, Il Divo’s combination of aggressive aesthetics and an allegorical agenda made Sorrentino a candidate for early sainthood, and he tried to parlay his newfound brand-name credibility into a fully transnational production. Directly named after a Talking Heads song and starring Sean Penn, This Must Be the Place (2011) represented the director’s attempt at a true North American breakthrough, with a good portion of its story (if not its shooting locations) set in the United States.

It should be said, off the top, that This Must Be the Place is a thoroughly and completely ridiculous movie, beginning with the casting of Penn as Cheyenne, a retired rock star in agonized self-exile (alternate title: The Old Mope). Padding around forlornly beneath a Phil Spector–level jet-black fright wig, Penn’s most formidable actor-of-his-generation gifts desert him (he gave better existential pantomime for Terrence Malick the same year in The Tree of Life). If Sorrentino’s strategy had been to juxtapose Penn’s walking-sight-gag status against a realistically depicted music-industry milieu, the film might have tapped into some satirical energy, but instead, This Must Be the Place is styled as a thriller in which Cheyenne tracks down the elderly Nazi who had tortured his father at Auschwitz.

The spectacle of Jeff Spicoli in Robert Smith drag walking an ancient SS henchman out onto the salt flats at gunpoint as a symbolic act of revenge against the horrors of the Holocaust has a certain surrealist grandeur, but it’s also laughable. Where Il Divo had seemed like a shot across the bow of Italian political reality, This Must Be the Place suggested a filmmaker trying desperately to live up to the world-beating legacy of countrymen like Michelangelo Antonioni (who came, saw, and conquered America with Zabriskie Point) and misplacing his mojo along the way.

Returning home, Sorrentino rebounded sharply with 2013’s The Great Beauty, an ostensible critique of la dolce vita that explicitly solicited comparisons to Fellini, swapping in a supermodel in a swimming pool for Anita Ekberg’s dip in the Trevi fountain.

‘La Dolce Vita’ (Cineriz)
‘La Dolce Vita’ (Cineriz)

Beautifully photographed and filled with allusions to national art and culture — many of them courtesy of the cynically worldly journalist-slash-symbol-of-our-collective-frail-mortality Jep Gambardella (Servillo) — The Great Beauty is a film that tries its damndest to have things both ways, greedily drinking in the spectacle of monied men and willing women at play in the cradle of Western civilization (it was shot in Rome) while also underlining its essential, possibly apocalyptic ridiculousness. Fifty years after Pauline Kael famously ran down Antonioni’s great La Notte by reducing it to a “Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe-Party,” Sorrentino happily clad himself in exactly such togs; the fact that they were hand-me-downs didn’t take any of the shine off of his Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

The emperor was naked a couple of years later when Sorrentino unveiled his followup, Youth, which continued the director’s fetish for stories about aged artists mulling over their own faded greatness, stranding Michael Caine’s septuagenarian composer at a fancy alpine spa filled with nubile nude bodies and watching him squirm as he realizes he’s now on the wrong end of that old spirit-is-willing/flesh-is-weak equation. Whether it was mere miscalculation or macho hubris to make a movie insistently humanizing rich-and-famous horndogs in 2015 is up for debate, but Youth’s glossy photography and fatuously self-reflexive dialogue (“Life goes on even without that cinema bullshit!” barks Jane Fonda, offering us an invitation to leave the theater) combined for the sort of ersatz intellectual-chic conversation piece that Jep Gambardella would have dismissed without a second thought.

Considering Sorrentino’s fascination with alienated loners, The Young Pope and its above-it-all protagonist may serve as an early culmination of sorts to a career that’s strangely hard to peg: It may be that the utter lack of subtlety in Sorrentino’s work is, paradoxically, what makes it difficult to decide precisely how to take it. If the swaggering Vatican camp of The Young Pope is meant as a parody of a celebrity-mad moment — or a self-portrait of a showman at his most bombastic — it may be brilliant; if not, then hopefully Paolo Sorrentino is a man of his word and staying safely off of Twitter.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.