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Movie Reviews

The Great Beauty



Najbolji-evropski-film-r68Released: 2013

Directed By: Paolo Sorrentino

Starring: Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli

Certificate: 15

Reviewed By: Howard Casner

In 1960, Federico Fellini gave us one of the greatest films of all time, La Dolce Vita, a savage look at society Italiana at the time, as well as a heartbreaking character study of a journalist who, by the end of the movie, is totally and spiritually lost (La Dolce Vita also gave us the word Paparazzi for those who like to play Trivial Pursuit). It’s been more than fifty years since that seminal film found its way into cinematic history and today we have The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezze), from screenwriters Umberto Contarello and Paolo Sorrentino, who also directed. This time though, the movie is a much more vicious and savage look at Momma Roma’s inhabitants and the writer, a journalist, is totally and spiritually lost from the beginning of the film.

I think the comparison is very apt because The Great Beauty feels, in many ways, as if it were a sequel to that earlier film, that is, if the central character were still alive and only 65. When I told a friend this, his first question was, butis it like the neo-realist Fellini or the Fellini after 8 ½? His reaction when I said it was of the later was not the most of positives, but people should be forewarned. The Great Beauty is not like the Fellini of Rome: Open City (yes, I know, he didn’t direct it, but he was a writer on it, so there), La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. This is the wild and deliriously dreamlike Fellini of Amarcord, Roma and Cassanova.

In other words, there is precious little plot here. Instead, it is a series of visually stunning vignettes as the central character travels through various scenes of daily high life in Rome including some amazing and beautiful a cappella performances in unusual outdoor locations; a stage performer in the middle of nowhere who runs head first into the stone of a bridge to prove a point of some kind that is never really clear (which, I think, is the point, I think); a doctor who gives Botox injections in a cathedral like office while a crowd of desperate haves look on; and, perhaps most movingly, a dinner party honoring a 109 year old nun who has yet to be canonized, but everyone considers to be a saint, and who is going to climb the steps of a shrine on her knees.

Contarello and Sorrentino’s Roma is filled with the grotesqueries made famous by Fellini (though on a scale of one to ten, Fellini’s grotesqueries were a twelve while here we have maybe a seven; but that’s not a negative, just an observation). It’s a city filled with hypocrites and people who have lost their way and are floundering to find meaning in their lives, if they ever really had a way in the first place. It’s filled with people who travel from wild party to wild party because it’s the place to be (including one in which the guests start a dance train and our hero says, “I love the trains in Rome, they never go anywhere”—a bit on the nose, perhaps, but still a fun line). I think the easiest way to describe it all is that from Contarello and Sorrentino’s point of view, Rome is nothing but one big shallow and empty performance art piece crammed full of nothing but smaller shallow and empty performance art pieces.

Perhaps the only thing sadder than any of this is that in spite of all the shallowness and emptiness at the core of it, Rome still seems ten times more alive and creative and vibrant than Los Angeles.

Our hero, Jep Gambardella, is played by Toni Servillo, quite possibly Italy’s greatest actor who has given incredible performances in such films as Il Divo (as prime minister Giulio Andreotti), Gomorrah, The Girl by the Lake and Gorbaciof (as you know who complete with bald head and birth mark). For context, Jep is in many ways a modern day Truman Capote and Marcel Proust, two writers who spent much of their life in the midst of the rich, the influential, the movers and shakers, quietly observing and recording the foibles of the upper crust. In fact, Jep says his goal was to become someone who was not just invited to all the A parties, but he wanted to be the person who could make or break one if he wanted to.

But unlike Capote and Proust, Jep only wrote one book, a novel he penned when he was much younger. It was well received and basically was his calling card into the society he ended up being so much a part of. Why he never wrote another is something he will not tell anyone. But the reason is the reason for the title of the film.

As comically witty as The Grand Beauty is; as visually exciting and stunning as it is; as brilliant as Servillo is, the movie still falls a bit short. For one thing, one could question whether it really has anything new to say; it is basically La Dolce Vita, but La Dolce Vita has already been done. All the movie really says is that Rome hasn’t changed much in fifty years. I’m not saying that’s not a worthwhile observation, but still, it does kind of rob anyone of being able to say, so this is what Rome has come to, since it really hasn’t come to that, it’s always been that way.

And I’m not convinced that the movie really sold the cause as to why Jep never wrote another book. So little time is devoted to that episode in his life, it ends up feeling more like an excuse rather than a reason.

But The Grand Beauty is a great ride of a movie, a roller coaster of evocative sights, sounds and savagery. It may not be La Dolce Vita, but that doesn’t mean it should be missed.

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