The Italian film director vying for a Palme d’Or

His film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), is the only Italian contender for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The gong will be presented by a jury led by Steven Spielberg on Sunday. Meet Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian Face of the Week.

The Italian film director vying for a Palme d'Or
Paolo Sorrentino at the Cannes Film Festival this week. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Who is Paolo Sorrentino?

He’s the director La Grande Bellezza, a film set in Rome which is drawing comparisons with Federico Fellini’s 1960s masterpiece, La Dolce Vita. Born in Naples in 1970, Sorrentino is also known for his film about the late former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, Il Divo, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008.

So what is it about The Great Beauty that’s captured the minds of festival-goers?

It could be the film’s tantalizing cinematography of Rome, or the fact it’s being compared to La Dolce Vita. But whereas Fellini’s classic portrayed hope in post-war Italy, Sorrentino told reporters in Cannes that his film reflected despair in today’s crisis-hit country. The film tells the tale of Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, an ageing journalist who lives off the royalties from an acclaimed novel penned in his younger years and who, when not putting together columns for high-society magazines, enjoys a lavish life of parties and promiscuity. But alas, all good things come to an end, with Gambardellla growing increasingly jaded with his hedonistic lifestyle. "The film simply tries to portray a poverty that is not material poverty but a different kind of poverty," Sorrentino said.

So is the film set to be Sorrentino’s masterpiece?

Well, some of the film critics seem to think so. The showing in Cannes met with long applause at the end, with one Belgian critic telling La Repubblica: “First we had Fellini’s Rome, now we have Sorrentino’s Rome.” However, a Greek critic was less enthusiastic. “It’s a less successful copy of Fellini’s work, but don’t write that as I have an interview set up for tomorrow.” So in good old-fashioned journalistic style, La Repubblica brushes off the plea and prints the comment anyway.  Sorrentino himself is confident the film will leave its mark in history. He told reporters: "For obvious reasons 'La Dolce Vita' is a masterpiece and my film will become a masterpiece too.”

Is Sorrentino known for any other films?

Sorrentino worked with the American actor Sean Penn in This Must Be The Place, another contender in Cannes in 2011. Such was his good experience with Penn, Sorrentino said in an interview with Grazia magazine at the time that he’d love to work with other foreign actors including Jack Nicholson, Joaquin Phoenix, Christian Bale and Meryl Streep. He made his debut as a screenwriter with 1998’s Polvere di Napoli and caught international attention in 2004 with award-winning thriller The Consequences of Love, which told the story of a lonely businessman caught up in the Mafia.

But surely he has a rotten tomato or two in his closet?

Not yet, it would seem. Sorrentino is widely regarded in Italy as being one of the country’s most talented directors.

Is Sorrentino known for any particular character traits?

He likes to work with the same team of filmmakers, and often casts the same actors and uses the same crew. Actor Tony Servillo has featured in almost all of his films.

Any noteworthy scandals we should be aware of?

Absolutely none, it would appear. He’s married to journalist Daniela d’Antonio and has a son and a daughter, Carlo and Anna.

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Seven classic films to watch for an Italian Christmas

What to watch over this year's quieter than usual Christmas holidays – whether you're in Italy or just missing it.

Seven classic films to watch for an Italian Christmas
Italian Christmas cinema is a whole genre of its own. Photo: via Pexels

Vacanze di Natale (Christmas Holidays)

Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we: this 1983 farce is the original cinepanettone or ‘cinematic Christmas cake’, the name given to a particular genre of Italian Christmas comedy that’s every bit as sugary, festive and familiar as a loaf of panettone. 

They’re less Hallmark romcom, more Carry On film, with visual gags, double entendres and questionable attitudes aplenty. Good taste it ain’t, but they at least have the advantage of being easy to understand even if your Italian is limited.

Vacanze di Natale is the mother of all cinepanettone, a culture-clash comedy about rich Milanese colliding with a rough and ready Rome family over a ski break in the Alps.

Other classics of the genre – most of which star the same two comedians, Massimo Boldi and Christian De Sica – include Natale sul Nilo (Christmas on the Nile), Natale a New York (Christmas in New York), and Natale a Rio (Christmas in Rio). Yes, there’s a formula.

Natale in casa Cupiello (The Nativity Scene)

At the exact other end of the spectrum is this classic family drama by Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo, written in 1931, adapted for Italian TV in 1977 and now appearing in a new version this year on Rai 1.

‘Christmas in the Cupiello house’, as its original title translates, tells the story of the Cupiellos, two parents in Naples whose children’s desires threaten to pull the family apart. Things come to a head on Christmas Eve, as the father of the family attempts to demonstrate to his son the importance of the traditional presepe, or nativity scene. 

Tune in to Rai 1 on December 22nd for the new version, or find the 1977 classic online.

La Freccia Azzurra (The Blue Arrow)

This lovely 1996 animation, based on a fairy tale by Italian children’s author Gianni Rodari, was repackaged for American audiences as How The Toys Saved Christmas – but watch the original to find a story based around ‘Italy’s Santa’: La Befana, the witch who brings Italian children gifts the night before Epiphany (January 6th). 

La Befana (who was turned in the American version into a kindly grandma with a toyshop) falls ill the evening she is due to deliver her presents, allowing her dastardly assistant Scarafoni to step in. He secretly plans to sell off the toys – including the Blue Arrow of the title, a model train – to rich kids, but the toys have different ideas and conspire to deliver themselves to the children who deserve them most.

Set in a town based on Orbetello in Tuscany in the 1930s, it’s elegantly animated, beautifully scored and very, very charming.

Regalo di Natale (Christmas Present)

If you’re looking for something more substantial than a cinepanettone, this 1986 psychological drama is more main course than dessert.

Four old friends and one wealthy acquaintance meet for a game of poker on Christmas Eve. As the rounds unfold, we learn why each player is determined to win, and why their friendships have turned sour. 

It’s comic too, but with depth and an intriguing narrative that make it a compelling alternative to the usual festive fare. If you enjoy it, there’s a 2004 sequel: Il rivincita di Natale, or Christmas Rematch. 

La Banda dei Babbi Natale (The Santa Claus Gang)

This good-natured comedy from 2010 stars comedians Aldo Baglio, Giovanni Storti and Giacomo Poretti, a well-known comic trio who have been making films together for more than 20 years.

Here they play three hapless pals from the same bocce (boules) team in Milan, who end up in jail on Christmas Eve after being mistaken for a gang of burglars who, like them, are dressed in Santa suits. They find themselves recounting the various personal tribulations that have brought each of them there in order to convince the chief inspector (perennially likeable Angela Finocchiaro) that they’re innocent.

It has plenty of what Italian comedy does best: lots of silliness, self-deprecation, and a warm heart that never slides into total schmaltz. 

Parenti Serpenti (Dearest Relatives, Poisonous Relations)

Darker but possibly even funnier is Parenti Serpenti (literally ‘snake relatives’), a black comedy from 1992 that lays bare the cynical truth about many family Christmases: everyone’s terribly glad to see their relatives, so long as it’s only once a year.

The family in question have reunited at their parents’ home in Sulmona, Abruzzo, and the celebrations are going smoothly until the elderly mother announces over Christmas dinner that she and their increasingly senile father no longer want to live alone, and their four adult children must decide which one of them will take them in in exchange for a share of their pension and inheritance of the house. 

The children and their spouses end up competing among themselves to prove why they’re unsuitable to look after their ageing parents, airing long-hidden grievances and secrets in the process.

Don’t watch if you want your cockles warmed, do watch if you have a dark sense of humour – or if you want to be reminded why big family Christmases aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be.

Trading Places (Una Poltrona Per Due)

Why is a Hollywood movie on this list – especially one that isn’t exactly considered a Christmas classic in English-speaking countries?

Because this 1983 identity swap comedy has wormed its way far deeper into Italian hearts than arguably anyone else’s. It became a fixture on primetime TV in Italy in the late ’90s, airing almost every Christmas Eve on Italia 1, and continues to attract millions of viewers each time, regularly beating more recent festive offerings.

Most people say it’s essentially because Italia 1 worked out it was cheaper to buy the rights for an older movie, and the viewing public are creatures of habit. But is there more to it?

I’d argue that Trading Places – or ‘One Armchair for Two’, as it’s known in Italy – is actually the perfect Italian Christmas film: a bit slapstick, very ’80s and deeply cynical (think A Christmas Carol but where Scrooge doesn’t abandon his money-grubbing ways, just teaches Bob Crachit to game the system too). Our two heroes – a down-and-out hustler played by Eddie Murphy, who in a bizarre social experiment ends up stepping into the shoes of wealthy banker Dan Ackroyd – triumph by being that most Italian of qualities, furbo (‘crafty’ or ‘smart’). 

Parts of the film haven’t aged well (the N-word, blackface, jokes about sexual assault…), but if you can ignore those it remains a satisfying screwball comedy (as well as an excellent demonstration of how insider trading works, which you can’t say about too many Christmas movies). You can catch it on Italia 1 this year, as usual, at 9:30pm on December 24th. 

Other Hollywood Christmas films that are firm favourites in Italy include Mamma, ho perso l’aereo (‘Mummy, I missed the plane’ – Home Alone), Mary Poppins (watch the Italian version just to marvel at the ingenious translations), Gremlins, and Il Grinch (you can probably guess that one).