Review: ‘The Great Beauty’ (‘La Grande Bellezza’)
Italy’s Entry Gets Oscar Nomination
Thursday, January 16, 2014
“The Great Beauty” is a film about death that’s neither tragic nor sad. Instead its tone is reflective and bittersweet, and its cinematic style is intoxicating. Director Paolo Sorrentino is that rare thing, a director who imprints every frame with his own personal vision. He has definite influences. He displays the visual beauty and elegant camera moves of Terrence Malick but with the impish love of the grotesque and the absurd made popular by his countryman Federico Fellini. In fact, "The Great Beauty" harkens specifically back to Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" (1960). But instead of Marcello Mastroianni's detached paparazzo journalist on the prowl for a story, a party, or a woman to bed, we have Toni Servillo's Jep, a one-time novelist who now interviews artists, most of whom he finds pretentious and irritating. A sense of malaise overhangs both films as well as the sense of someone or something dying. Both films are also set in Rome, and neither protagonist seems much interested in any real problems of the outside world -- they are too wrapped up in their own issues.
In "The Great Beauty," Jep is celebrating his 65th birthday in a wild party that opens the film. He seems to have managed to parlay one successful novel into a career but now he's writing fluff pieces on artists. One woman slams her head against a wall as a performance and can’ explain the “vibrations” that motivate her. Jep persists in asking her questions about her art and her refusal to answer only makes him mock her even more. He has no patience for this kind of pretentious artist and for much of the film that's the only kind of people we meet. So it's a surprise to both Jep and us when a soft spoken man who -- doesn't even seem to call himself an artist -- simply presents a gallery of photos taken of him every day since he was born that manages to move Jep to tears. It's moments like this where Sorrentino finds unexpected beauty and the film grows still and quiet to appreciate it.
Sorrentino raises questions about artists and the authenticity of their art even at the risk of turning the scrutiny on himself and his film. But he does so with great wit and slyness. That's one of the things that makes the film and Jep so enjoyable, they don't spare themselves from the scrutiny they place on others and they maintain dry humor throughout.
When one woman criticizes Jep he replies that her life is in tatters just like everyone else so she should look at others with affection and not contempt. And that is the tone Sorrentino takes. He’s never mean -- brutally honest perhaps but never cruel -- and he always manages to find humor and beauty in unlikely places. I came away from the film with the feeling that I had collected an album of images that I wanted to hold onto whether it was of a couple so in the throes of new love that they had been kissing for 10 days or of a giraffe, oddly out of place in Rome, that a magician was going to make vanish.
The film opens with the quote: "“Travel is very useful and it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our own journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength. It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. It’s a novel, simply a fictitious narrative.” - Céline, "Journey to the End of the Night." This suggests that we may not be able to trust Jep on his journey, the life he presents to us may simply be his fictitious narrative of his life that he crafts for us as he would a novel -- if he actually had the energy to write another. Jep's concluding lines riff on the opening.
He says, "This is how it always ends, with death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. It is all settled beneath the the chitter chatter and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and Fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world. Beyond there is what lies beyond. I don't deal with what lies beyond. Therefore, let this novel begin. After all it's just a trick. Yes, just a trick."
Sorrentino's film is not so much a trick but a seduction. He lures us in with swooning camerawork and inventive storytelling, charming us with eccentric characters and teasing us with complex themes. Even the title is a tease that could mean a number of different things. But then Sorrentino isn't interested in telling us what to think but rather to stimulate us to think about what he means. Rome, someone says, is known for fashion, and “The Great Beauty” (in Italian with English subtitles) displays an elegant, audacious sense of style as well as a passionate, introspective soul.
Companion viewing: "La Dolce Vita," "Il Divo" (the previous collaboration of Sorrentino and Servillo), "Tree of Life"