‘Parthenope’ Review: Paolo Sorrentino Whips Up More Great Beauty in Melancholic Tale

What a world Paolo Sorrentino creates. The Italian director called one of his movies – the one that won the Oscar for Best International Film – “The Great Beauty,” but that could have been the title of lots of them, definitely including “Parthenope,” which premiered on Tuesday in the Main Competition section of the Cannes Film Festival.

In this case, the great beauty could be the film’s title character, a stunning young woman named after a mythological siren inextricably linked with the city of Naples. It could also be the world she inhabits, a sun-drenched coastal city on the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Mediterranean. And it could just as well be the aura that Sorrentino’s movies create, languorous and exquisite and, much of the time, gloriously sad.

“Parthenope” isn’t a Sorrentino breakthrough by any means, but a recapitulation of many of his obsessions. His last film, 2021’s “The Hand of God,” was a love letter to his hometown of Naples with lots of autobiographical elements, and this one removes the personal story but retains the sense that it’s a tribute to the place. The Fellini-esque absurdities and biting satire of films like “The Great Beauty” and TV series like “The Young Pope” has been tamped down, if not entirely removed; this is not a gallery of grotesques, but one of, well, beauties. And it is ravishing.

The great beauty in “Parthenope” is Parthenope herself, who is born at the beginning of the film in the waters of the Bay of Naples and placed in a bed fashioned from an ornate carriage brought “straight from Versailles” by Naples’ mayor. From there, it’s a quick fast-forward to Parthenope emerging from the sea at the age of 18 – wearing a bikini and smoking a cigarette, gorgeous and languid with just enough of a sharp wit to keep an army of suitors at bay.

As played by stunning newcomer Celeste Dalla Porta, Parthenope is the center of attention, but also a mystery as she lounges through idle summers in Naples and on the nearby island of Capri. It’s there, five years later, where she encounters the writer John Cheever, an author she’d been reading and quoting for years. As played by Gary Oldman in a small role that nonetheless reverberates through the entire film, this dream version of Cheever is dissolute but self-aware, a man who has chosen to live in a kind of glorious melancholy, eternally pondering questions like, “What happened to all the beautiful plans we made as drunkards in the night?”

Oldman’s Cheever doesn’t pontificate, he rhapsodizes; he’s a grand construction, romantic and doomed. “Are you aware of the disruption your beauty causes?” he asks her – and she is, spurning advances from a rich man who hovers above her in his helicopter and wandering the streets in a sparkling, barely-there minidress. At one point, she encounters Cheever, out for a midnight stroll, and asks if she can join him. “No,” he says. “I don’t want to steal one moment of your youth.” And then he’s gone.

There’s a love triangle, a suicide that will haunt Parthenope for the rest of her life, an aging actress who wanders her home in scenes that could have come from “Sunset Boulevard,” a cholera epidemic and an academic career that finds her as the only student who can stand up to a crusty, wise and demanding anthropology professor. She says she wants to write a thesis on suicide, but he argues against it and suggests she write one on “the cultural frontiers of the miraculous.” (Whatever that phrase means, maybe it’s one that Sorrentino is circling as well.)

Gradually, the air of ecstatic longing fades, and so does the careless lassitude of youth. When someone tells her she’s grown presumptuous and cold, she shrugs it off and says she’s grown up, but she remains both haunted by and dismissive of her past: “It was just young love,” she says, “and young love is good for nothing.”

But, of course, it’s not good for nothing – it’s good for filmmakers like Sorrentino, who together with cinematographer Daria D’Antonio and composer Lele Marchitelli, both former collaborators on “The Hand of God,” can use lost love to suffuse a film with a magnificent longing. “Parthenope” gets weirder as Parthenope gets older (in what amounts to an epilogue, she’s played by veteran Italian actress Stefania Sandrelli (“Divorce Italian Style”), but it doesn’t lose its sense of loss or its sense of place.

You could argue that Sorrentino is treading water after the deeply personal explorations in “The Hand of God,” but these are rich and mysterious waters to tread. “Parthenope” is a work of casual mastery; you could say that it’s great and it’s beautiful.

A24 will release “Parthenope” in the United States.

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