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Photograph: Gianni Fiorito/Paolo Sorrentino

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

A beautiful woman transfixes everyone she encounters – including director Paolo Sorrentino

Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, The Hand of God) is known for making wonderfully cinematic films, typically with male protagonists, so it’s refreshing to see him focus on a female hero in this languorous, gorgeous-looking period piece. 

Parthenope is born in Naples, 1950, and grows into a conventionally beautiful young woman (newcomers Celeste Dalla Porta). So beautiful that she’s getting flirty looks from her own brother, Raimondo (Daniele Rienzo), as well as friend Sandrino (Dario Aita). Imagine the chaos when this threesome heads to Capri, the playground of the rich and famous. Heads turn wherever Parthenope goes. Acting agents scout her. Men in helicopters invite her for picnics. 

An intelligent anthropology student, Parthenope navigates this with grace and humour, choosing to hang out with a drunken novelist, John Cheever (Gary Oldman), who prefers boys. An incident in Capri changes Parthenope’s life forever, and we follow her over the ensuing years as she meets an array of eccentric characters.

Parthenope is split into chronological sections, and the superior early chapters have shades of everything from Death In Venice to The Dreamers. Porta puts in an enjoyable performance, whether delivering sharp one-liners or affecting that glassy straight-ahead look that all pretty young women must – especially in 1970s Italy. 

It’s refreshing to see Sorrentino focusing on a female hero

Given that context, the attention Parthenope receives seems remarkably respectful, save one rejected man’s snipping. It’s good to see Sorrentino addressing the subject of unwanted sexual attention, but a female co-writer would have brought more realism to this situation. This is clearly more about fantasy than reality, and the entire film could be read as an allegory about Naples.

Sorrentino reteams with The Hand of God’s Daria D’Antonio, an excellent cinematographer who also happens to be a woman. But Porta/Parthenope is still shot as an object of desire. This may be the point, but it undermines the script’s nods to feminism, such as her focus on her career over motherhood.

There’s an uncomfortable scene where a scared young girl and boy are told to have sex in front of a crowd of lewd locals. Parthenope’s gaze fixes on the girl, her tearful eyes full of compassion. But we see little evidence of this experience affecting her life path – in fact, her choice of sexual partner becomes increasingly problematic and absurd.

At least an intimacy co-ordinator is listed in the credits. Sorrentino is clearly trying to move with the times – even if he’s still most comfortable in the decades he’s depicting here on screen.

Parthenope premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Written by
Anna Smith
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