The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)
(Italy/France, 142 min.)
Dir. Paolo Sorrentino, Writ. Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello.
Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso,
Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty.
Photo credit Gianni Fiorito, Courtesy of Mongrel Media.
Bellissimo! If Federico Fellini were to come back from the dead today and film a roaring party, it might look a lot like The Great Beauty. The Great Beauty could be the best Fellini film that Fellini never made. The legacy of the cinema Italiano is alive in full force in this sumptuous satire from director Paolo Sorrentino (Il divo). The Great Beauty, Italy’s official submission and nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, is an intoxicatingly Fellini-esque portrait of the ruins of Rome seen through the eyes of an aging writer named Jep Gambardella (played by an outstanding Toni Servillo). Jep, a fun-loving celebrity/culture journalist, gazes upon Rome with increasingly world-weary eyes. What Jep sees looks fun and glamorous at first before Sorrentino perverts the old man’s worldview to make everything seem hollow by the film’s end. Sorrentino delivers with The Great Beauty an entrancing satire on the empty excess of the sweet life.

A film could not open with a wilder start than The Great Beauty does, for Sorrentino introduces the audience to Rome in all its eye-catching wonder. A striking tour guide leads a group of visitors around the picturesque ruins. It’s a view so remarkable and beautiful that it kills a Japanese tourist.

If Rome seems nice by day, though, it seems twice as inviting at night. Cut to an endless train of sexy people get their drink on and bounce to the beat of “Far l’amore” at a wild party on a rooftop. (If you aren’t into the sexy world The Great Beauty by this point in the film, might as well leave.) The bash is a roaring affair that Jay Gatsby could only dream of, yet Sorrentino fills the rooftop with party guests who are not only young and beautiful, but he also invites guests of all ages, shapes, and sizes to bust a move on the dance floor.

The elongated party sequence, consistently fuelled by the film’s outstanding sound design, sees people of all ages and body types bumping together in a wild fracas of excess. Everyone lives the high life in The Great Beauty (unless they’re members of the nunnery to which the film frequently cuts), whether they’re wearing the finest in Italian suits or dancing bare-chested. Each partier looks so chic and unique they could be the subject of a Vogue photo spread or perhaps a Diane Arbus shoot. What’s wild about The Great Beauty’s extravagant opening number, though, is simply the sight of seeing such a range of revellers enjoying the party. As partiers young and old form a line and dance in unison, Sorrentino offers a snippet of life that one would be unlikely to see in North America where nightlife seems a much younger affair. The sweet life of Rome looks ageless.

It’s in the midst of this sexy party that the film introduces Jep. It’s actually his 65th birthday, so the fact that such a suave senior can attract such a crowd is extraordinary. It’s only then, roughly ten minutes or more into the film, that The Great Beauty assumes any clear perspective. The film comes from Jep’s point of view as he narrates his musings on life from his posh Roman apartment, which is almost within reach of the Coliseum and offers a view so beautiful it could kill another Japanese tourist.

Life is beautiful when one doesn’t look at it too closely, though, and Jep’s love for wild parties, gorgeous women, and hifalutin culture just doesn’t seem the same when a face from his past appears and drops a piece of information that makes him re-examine life with a new hue. Jep enjoys the status as a one-hit wonder novelist in addition to his fame as a celeb journo, and his book—a novella, really—called The Human Apparatus provides much of the subject—and basis—for his newfound introspection. He’s tired of the superficiality of his life, or he is only now awakening to it, and he gradually puts the condition of man (the “human apparatus,” he calls it) under the microscope.

Jep recalls that one of his goals as a young writer was to one-up Flaubert and write a book about nothing. It’s in this great nothingness that The Great Beauty finds the magnificence that lies in the contradictions of Rome as Jep piddles about his newly trivialized life and takes in each moment with writerly inquisitiveness. Jep does write about nothing, for he turns Rome’s radiant emptiness into a thing of beauty through his thoughts and words. He’s just too lazy to put paper to pen.

The newfound clarity leads to romance, as Jep finds love with a woman who oddly fits with the timeless beauty he observes throughout the city. Romana (Sabrina Ferilli), an over-the-hill stripper, matches the deteriorating landmarks that retain their beauty in spite of their age. As Jep explores this new chapter of his life with Romana, he opens up to new feelings and finds emotions and desires that have been covered by his superficial life until the news of lost love arrives shortly after his birthday.

Romana, however, exits the film abruptly in a bizarrely disjointed departure. Such blemishes too frequently mark the ornate artistry of The Great Beauty, for the pace and the flow of the film are marked by the efforts to trim the film down to 142 minutes from its original running time of a reported 190 minutes. Romana’s departure causes the most significant narrative gap into which the excellence of The Great Beauty falls short, but other characters come, go, and rupture the film in turn.

The Great Beauty is hardly a film about plot, though, so Jep’s musings on life and art restore the film as a historian does an old masterpiece. The Great Beauty finds extensive moments in which Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi draw out the exquisite meaning (or meaninglessness) of life in beautifully elongated shots that sweep throughout the parties, ruins, and picturesque settings to explore every surface and space that goes untouched and unnoticed by Jep’s fellow partiers. Smith offers a profound, yet understated, view of culture and life. Looking at the ruins of his own life, marked symbolically by the remains of the ancient city that are peppered throughout the new season of Rome to make Sorrentino’s city resemble a timeless crumbling pit of nothingness, Jep mixes disillusionment with biography and turns each moment into something beautiful. Jep, in the face of so much splendour and youth, must confront the contradictions of his life and ultimately challenge the fact that his life has been meaningless.

Jep still finds time to attend great soirées and the unending string of socialites provides The Great Beauty with a series of inspiring juxtapositions and incongruities. The star performer at an arty party, for example, is not a seasoned Michelangelo, but a snotty little girl throwing paint. The socialites watch in awe as she hurls gobs of colour and makes the kind of thing some guy at the art gallery would dismiss and say, “My kid could paint that.” The partiers nevertheless look at the coloured mess with awe and phony-intellectual wonder: how good it is to give something meaning! A son of Jep’s friend, on other hand, deals with psychosis by painting himself red, while a Cardinal regales dinner guests with culinary tips. Sorrentino’s Rome is a beautiful city ravaged with hedonism.

The most startling contrast might be the apparent split of the film into two unsignalled parts. There is a thematic shift within The Great Beauty that comes somewhere near the unforgettable cameo appearance by Fanny Ardant. After catching the French beauty, playing an old flame, on a walk home after a bumpy party, Jep begins to see all that is absent from his life. The film builds to Jep’s most amusing party in which he plays host to a visiting nun. The nun, a woman of Mother Teresa-like age and stature, has taken a vow of poverty that differs greatly from the cornucopia of self-indulgence that comes in the first two hours. Sorrentino finds in this hunched little saint the contradictions that Jep struggles to articulate in musings. The partiers are enrapt by her presence, for nobody is doing shots or cocaine, and they are enamoured with her angelic devotion to the spiritual reward of drawing people closer together. The hypocrisy of these people is palpable as The Great Beauty looks at this old woman with a funny, yet endearing eye.

The Great Beauty doesn’t end with a big ugly monster looking back at the audience, for Sorrentino makes the audience confront the monster within them as they watch Jep transform during this curious journey. The Great Beauty instead offers a beautifully serene image as a flock of flamingoes joins the party to greet the saint. As Jep steps onto his balcony and watches the birds in the light of the setting Roman sun, The Great Beauty captures life in all its absurd, natural beauty.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Great Beauty screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until March 6th.