Thursday, June 13, 2024

“PARTHENOPE”

THE STORYA beautiful woman navigates the ups and downs of life in twentieth century Naples, in Paolo Sorrentino’s decades-spanning drama.

THE CASTCeleste Dalla Porta, Silvio Orlando, Peppe Lanzetta, Gary Oldman, Luisa Ranieri, Isabella Ferrari, Stefania Sandrelli

THE TEAMPaolo Sorrentino (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 136 Minutes


Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) is known for his sumptuous visuals and his near-fetishization of beauty, and those distinctive traits are very much evident in his latest film, “Parthenope.” Unfortunately, though, while his latest is undeniably beautiful to look at, the A24 film is ultimately a case of style over substance, lacking anything resembling emotional depth with a heavy emphasis on the male gaze and a rehash of ideas we’ve already heard from Sorrentino before in his previous works.

The film begins in 1950, with the birth of Parthenope (pronounced like “Penelope”), who is named, somewhat portentously, after Naples itself, or rather, the name was initially given to Naples by the Greeks, after the siren that supposedly washed ashore there and bewitched the city. Sure enough, Parthenope lives up to her namesake as she grows into a stunningly beautiful young woman (Celeste Dalla Porta) and leaves a trail of besotted men in her wake wherever she goes, including her own brother, Raimondo (Daniele Rienzo). That leads to both trouble and tragedy in an early incident that looms large over the rest of the film.

As Parthenope tries to determine the course she should take in her life, she meets a variety of men and women, all of whom have a degree of influence on how she sees the world. These include the American author John Cheever (delightfully played by Gary Oldman, though he disappears from the film pretty early on); aging Italian movie stars Flora Malva (Isabella Ferrari) and Greta Cool (Luisa Ranieri), who essentially push her toward a life on the silver screen; and the lascivious Bishop of San Gennaro (Peppe Lanzetta), who is host to a local blood miracle every year and moans that there’s always a lot of clearing up to do afterward.

Throughout her life, Parthenope’s most rewarding relationship (for both the character and the audience) is with her perpetually grumpy university professor, Devoto Marotta (Silvio Orlando), who encourages her to pursue an academic career as an anthropologist when she worries that her beauty will ultimately lead her to a vacuous, unfulfilling life. Indeed, Orlando ends up stealing the film with his tendency to quote Billy Wilder (“An anthropologist”) and note-perfect line deliveries, most notably in his introduction scene, when he admonishes latecomers to his lectures by advising them to “piss and shit BEFORE coming to university.”

There isn’t much of a plot to the film, as Parthenope essentially wafts through her life, having encounter after encounter, none of which have any real emotional impact on the audience despite the film trying to communicate that these interactions are affecting Parthenope. Occasionally, they take a turn for the salacious – the most memorable scene involves her being invited to witness the conjugal union of a marriage between two powerful Italian families – but they still pass by without evoking anything involving actual emotion or intellect, seeing how overly written the film’s philosophical discussions on its themes are.

To that end, the script becomes increasingly frustrating, constantly steering away from other elements that might be deemed problematic or interesting. For example, Sorrentino skips straight to Parthenope’s 18th birthday after she’s born, which completely avoids addressing how her brother’s insatiable lust for her might have influenced her early teenage years. The script also avoids the opportunity to criticize the privilege of the beautiful – she essentially gets a free pass to her university degree without doing any work, and the movie treats that as a good thing for her. On a similar note, the dialogue frequently fails to engage, at least in the English translation, in which everything is riddled with flowery language and sounds like aphoristic cliché. That said, one or two more cynical lines do jump out occasionally, as someone dismissively says of one of Parthenope’s previous dalliances, “It was just young love, and young love is good for nothing.” Still, these moments are few and far between, given the film’s runtime.

Making her on-screen acting debut, newcomer Celestia Dalla Porta makes for a convincing goddess (especially how Sorrentino frames and shoots her as a classical movie star). Still, she’s saddled with a script that rarely allows her to even react to what’s happening, let alone dig her teeth into anything emotional with resonance. Elsewhere, Oldman is fun while he’s around as an American drinking himself away, Orlando steals every scene here’s in with a warm performance that comes the closest to earning any sort of sentiment, and Italian screen legend Stefania Sandrelli has a cameo in the final sequences as Parthenope’s older self, though again, she doesn’t have much to do except look a bit wistful.

A female-centered film from Sorrentino certainly has its fair share of problems. Watching Celestia Dalla Porta on screen for the first time lends it a fresh dynamic for the 53-year-old Italian director. Both she and the film are stunning to look at, courtesy of cinematographer Daria D’Antonio, who also shot “The Hand of God,” and some striking costume work by Carlo Poggioli. However, they’re all in service to a story that feels episodic, meandering, and far too repetitive, not just in over-analyzing its own themes but ones we’ve also seen Sorrentino already touch upon before.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Sorrentino's latest is utterly beautiful to look at for its leading star, its costumes, and its scenery.

THE BAD - If only the visual aesthetics were matched by something dramatically interesting. This is a clear case of style over substance.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best International Feature

THE FINAL SCORE - 5/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Sorrentino's latest is utterly beautiful to look at for its leading star, its costumes, and its scenery.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>If only the visual aesthetics were matched by something dramatically interesting. This is a clear case of style over substance.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-international-feature/">Best International Feature</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>5/10<br><br>"PARTHENOPE"