A tourist looks out over the vast, renowned city of Rome before keeling over in the street, dead, killed by the beauty of it all. Jep isn’t so lucky; he’s still seeking the beauty that will end him.
I chose “The Great Beauty” – an imaginative, existential Italian dramedy from Naples-native Paolo Sorrentino – as my first experience at the theater in 2014, and I find myself so deeply appreciative of its existence yet disappointed that I wasn’t able to champion it on my Best Films of 2013 list. Somewhere between the neorealist social context of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and the flashy cinematic glitz of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” lays “The Great Beauty:” an extravagant and overwhelming visual feast that delves into the fantastical delusions of its enigmatic protagonist.
I’m admittedly predisposed to stories about great cities and people that live in them. In “The Great Beauty,” the city is Rome and the person is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). Jep is a 65-year-old writer and prominent socialite in Rome’s many intellectual, political, and religious circles. He wrote one great novel that was widely adored in Italy and has been living off that success for forty years – picking up the pen only to write sardonic interview pieces for a newspaper. When Jep discovers his childhood lover has died, he’s oddly devastated, and sets out into the streets of Rome – visiting old friends, discovering new ones, and contending with an emerging lack of fulfillment that his lavish parties have provided him for decades.
Sorrentino crafts “The Great Beauty” as a tale cast somewhere in the void that separates literal reality and hallucination. He’s playing with our presumptions of what is made possible by wealth, imagination, and fantasy. Jep stumbles upon a beautiful, graceful giraffe in the middle of a castle’s courtyard at night. But it’s only part of a magic act being put on later that week. We glimpse the beauty that Jep is wandering around seeking, but are always thwarted by the interruption of reality.
The content is packed into a dense, relentless series of vaguely related scenes each with their own discoveries, monologues, and glimpses of beauty– it’s all truly overwhelming for a single viewing. Toni Servillo stuns as Jep with a fascinating assemblage of facial expressions and an assured sense of worldliness. Jep wrestles with his contradictory behavior – searching for some sort of promising future in his older years while doing nothing to change his present. He entertains the question “Why didn’t you ever write another novel?” on a daily basis – we can’t be so sure he knows the answer, but hope that his travels throughout the film lead him towards an answer.
Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (who also shot Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy”) suspends our connection to a specific time with over-the-top camera movement not unlike the treasured French romance “Amelie.” We’re lost in Rome – the history of the ancient city and the culture of the contemporary one fold on top of one another to create interesting connections between past and present.
Sorrentino treads ground that may draw accusations of pretention – Jep even mentions the film’s title in one of many short murmurs of narration. There’s real thought behind the outward visual approach here, though. The grandiosity isn’t without meaning – it’s simply a style choice to wrap us up in the impossibly lavish world of the socially elite. Past the party scenes, past the wild crane shots, the core of “The Great Beauty” is the quiet musings of a man in an unexpected period of reflection after the death of his first (and likely only) love.
“The Great Beauty” made the January short-list for the Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, and won best director, actor, and overall film at the 26th European Film Awards – all for good reason, it’s a vivacious knockout of a film that’s not to be missed in theaters.
U.S./U.K. – Slow limited release in major markets: check local listings | Criterion Edition Blu-ray/DVD releases March 25, 2014
2 hr. 18 min.