After delving into Rome’s magnificent but deathly decadence with foreign-language Oscar winner “The Great Beauty,” prolific Italo auteur Paolo Sorrentino worked on dual fronts this year, making Oscar contender “Youth,” about how two octogenarians, played by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, see themselves in the future, and “The Young Pope,” a pan-European English-language production from Sky and HBO aimed squarely at audiences who enjoy bingeing on high-end drama series.
Toiling away on “Pope” in an editing suite near Piazza Vittorio, the heart of Rome’s multi-ethnic Esquilino district, Sorrentino is keeping to a tight schedule on the series, which revolves around the first American pontiff, a tormented conservative, played by Jude Law. Diane Keaton portrays a nun, in her first recurring role in a TV skein.
As he works, the director sounds like a man in the midst of an intensely spiritual quest.
“How can you reconcile your personal pain with the fact that religion, Catholic religion in this case, says you have to accept that pain; that it’s part of a grand design?” the director posits, describing the eight-episode show’s theme. “But if this person happens to a pope — the man who is designated to believe, more than anyone else — then you have a pretty big dilemma.”
Not surprisingly, Sorrentino is making this leap into the global TV arena with a tried-and-true team. Key members include his longtime cinematographer Luca Bigazzi and editor Cristiano Travaglioli, and also production designer Ludovica Ferrario, a more recent addition.
Bigazzi, best known to U.S. critics for the sensual crane and dolly shots in “The Great Beauty” — memorably when the camera glides down the Tiber in the closing credits — has worked with Sorrentino on six movies, ever since the director’s sophomore film, “The Consequences of Love.” The Italian lenser doesn’t disappoint in “Youth,” which opens with a striking revolving shot of a singer performing in the garden of an upscale Swiss spa at night, bathed only in lights connected to the scenery.
“What Luca initially brought to me was an aesthetic of darkness that I did not know — and I got to know it in ‘The Consequences of Love,’ ” Sorrentino says.
In “Youth,” what was important, he adds, “was a unity of setting.” That setting, a surreal hotel, was fashioned by Ferrario in three different locations in Italy and Switzerland. “She’s an architect, which is very useful,” Sorrentino notes. “She has a sense of proportion, of geometry. There is lots of geometry in cinema.”
Sorrentino, who is often said to draw from Fellini, concedes: “Fellini is one of the directors I love the most. But it’s weird, because there are so many other directors I love, and sometimes when I look at my work, I notice I’ve ripped off much more from them than from Fellini.”
For “Youth,” which depicts the bond between two friends — a retired orchestra conductor (Caine) and a still-active movie director (Keitel) vacationing in the Alps, Sorrentino did more of a self-assessment, calling the film his “attempt to make an intimate movie, from the heart.”
As is his custom, “Youth” was shot fast, without watching dailies or considering the possibility of reshoots. Therefore, when Sorrentino gets to the editing stage, there’s a sense of discovery. “It’s a great moment,” he says. “I see all this material, some of which I don’t even remember because I shot it months earlier, and we create the movie with Cristiano, with whom there is a great understanding.” That understanding is all the more crucial between a film’s director and editor, because the two are locked up together for months. “You have to have the same sense of humor besides having the same (cinematic) vision,” Sorrentino explains.
Working alongside such simpatico colleagues certainly keeps the director far from the young pope’s existential pain. And it’s a necessary step. After all, in a way, Sorrentino is a true believer himself — in the cinematic arts.