The Great Beauty's star Toni Servillo apologises for feeling under pressure. He has a plane to catch as he is appearing on stage this evening in Rome in Eduardo de Filippo's Inner Voices (Le voci di dentro), a sharp, spare production, which Servillo also directed.
Today we all feel lost in the chaos. There is no longer tenderness, just confusion.
“Ralph Richardson played the role in 1983,” Servillo explains proudly of the production which he says has toured internationally to the US, Paris, Madrid and Athens. His performance as always has received glowing reviews.
Performing on stage 200 nights a year requires an enormous amount of discipline, which he says makes him vastly different from The Great Beauty's protagonist, the hedonistic Jep Gambardella, who parties till the wee hours every night of the week. A novelist with writer's block, Jep is now a society and arts writer for a national newspaper. The problem is at 65, he's bored and feeling old, even if he just gave one hell of a birthday bash at his sumptuous bachelor pad overlooking the Colosseum.
“Last night after the film's premiere I went to the party for five minutes and then I went back to the hotel to sleep,” notes Servillo, who is far younger at 54.
The Great Beauty marks the actor's fourth leading role with director Paolo Sorrentino and he delivers a finely tuned performance as he did as former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in the director's Il Divo (2008), which also screened in the Cannes competition.
[ Watch interview: The Great Beauty director Paolo Sorrentino and actor Toni Servillo ]
Sorrentino likewise admits he has left his wild days behind him. “I have my kids here with me in Cannes,” the 43-year-old admits. He has even cut the wild hair that he had in our previous interview for This Must Be the Place, which interestingly starred a world-weary Sean Penn with similar hair.
Nevertheless, the frescos of Roman good times the men have created on screen are alluring and make us want to catch the next flight to the Italian capital—and to kick up our heels.
The Great Beauty examines the aftermath of Berlusconi's Italy in the manner that Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita recorded the empty hedonism that followed World War Two. Though there are vast differences in tone, notes Servillo.
“I don't want to make any disrespectful comparison with Fellini, but what I often say is that while Fellini looked with tenderness and sweetness at the landscape in front of him, Paolo no longer had that handrail to lean on and just fell down the stairwell in order to give us a portrait of that society and that city. I think that on a linguistic level, Paolo acknowledges the master who went before him. Fellini fed off the post-war enthusiasm. Paolo looks more at the missed opportunities. The tone is melancholic.
“Today we all feel lost in the chaos. There is no longer tenderness, just confusion. And it's quite funny because with La Dolce Vita, what was meant to be the title was the beautiful confusion! Nowadays we are in a state of constant confusion but it's no longer beautiful.”
Was the process of working with Sorrentino different this time?
It was more difficult because it's a more ambitious film. It's a very complex fresco of a long journey through different worlds filmed against the backdrop of this eternal city. We see all these mundane and social rituals concerning the arts and other fields of activity. What helped us is that we know each other very well. We also know that typical Neapolitan character, that figure of a dandy, which is Jep Gambardella. That's a character which has often been portrayed in novels, so we are very familiar with that kind of man.
Given that you both come from Naples, are Neapolitans so different from Romans?
Yes. I think also from a literary point of view the Roman character seems to be more concrete, whereas Neapolitan people tend to be more elusive. We can say Romans are more materialistic, while the Neapolitans are more metaphorical in their way of being.
So what do you think of Jep Gambardella?
What stays with me is the melancholic indifference with which he seems to face life and especially to waste his talent. And also the irony that he uses in dealing with life, the typical Neapolitan attitude that allows you to be passionate but at the same time to stay at a distance from things.
Melancholic indifference is a thing these days.
Yes, I believe it's something that concerns us all. The film, of course, is the product of an artist who decided on characters with specific traits and features but then these characters become a metaphor for a more general view.
Why is Jep unable to produce anything?
He is no longer able to create, to write, because he thinks he is living in a world where words are meaningless. That's what he says in the film quite clearly, that he's a writer who instead of writing his own autobiography decided to live it in his daily life. At the end of the journey that he accomplishes during the film, he realises the trickiness of representation and he possibly finds hope in the power of words. He learns that beauty often hides itself under the blah blah blah that constantly surrounds him.
How do you compare playing Jep to playing Andreotti?
This role is the opposite. Andreotti was portrayed as a very cold machine; the symbol of loneliness and of the mystery of the impossibility to grasp power. He was this powerful figure, whereas Jep is someone we might call a cynical sentimentalist. He becomes cynical when sentiment brings him to the brink of tears.
Watch 'The Great Beauty'
Wednesday 30 December, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies
Friday 1 January, 2:00am on SBS World Movies
Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso