The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)

Italy (2013) Dir. Paolo Sorrentino

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a popular culture columnist living the high life, throwing extravagant parties in his plush Rome apartment for his artist friends from all ends of the spectrum. But after his 65th birthday, Jep finds himself reflecting on his life, loves and lofty reputation despite his major claim to fame being a best selling novel he wrote while in his twenties, creating a sense of unfulfillment within him.

This near two and half hour satire from Paolo Sorrentino, marks the director’s return to his native land after the mixed reaction to his English language debut This Must be The Place starring Sean Penn. It’s a sprawling often discordant but visually stunning tapestry of events, from both the past and present, of a man who suddenly realises he is old enough to know better but is keen to understand why. Comparisons have been made between The Great Beauty and many classics of Italian arthouse cinema such as Felini’s celebrated La Dolce Vita, which can be seen as either a flattering point of reference or setting expectations extremely high.

The film opens with an apparently unconnected montage of images from around Rome on a typical day before ending at Jep’s lively balcony party, a heaving throng of over dressed, smartly dressed and inappropriately dressed revellers of all ages saluting our protagonist on his 65th birthday. However the next day, Jep seems to have been hit hard by reaching this point in his life, and while looking over the populace of Rome from his balcony he starts to wonder what could have been. Keen to find answers Jep’s first port of call is his first love, a girl he met when he 18 and last saw over forty years ago, only to discover from her husband that she had died the day before.

This sends Jep into a spiral of self doubt and irritation about his decadent lifestyle, lashing out at his friends and questioning the value of his work. He does get an unusual shot at redemption when an old friend asks Jep to find a husband for his daughter Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a 42 year-old stripper whose lack of pretension provides Jep with some much needed light relief from his usual circle.

They too are a unique bunch most of whom are unaware of what is happening under their noses as they continue to indulge in their superficial professions – until Jep, with a delicious lack of tact, wakes them up. Conversely Jep uses his high brow contacts to educate and enlighten Ramona to the wonders of art with a crash course in how the cultural elite like to live it up.

Billed as a comedy, Sorrentino doesn’t present us with any laugh out loud moments with this film, which casual viewers or those not familiar with the Italian cinema Sorrentino is referencing will find the comedy label even more baffling. However the savagery behind the more cynical moments makes up for this – including Jep acerbically driving a haughty performance artist known as Talia Concept (Anita Kravos) – whose act involves being naked and headbutting stone walls – to tears as he exposes her as a pretentious fraud.

Later, Jep visits an exclusive botox specialist to the elite whose set up is ridiculously ostentatious but naturally comforting to his vain clients, in a scene so embarrassingly ludicrous it could actually be real! Most biting of all is arguably the young child painter forced to create a work for world famous critics and buyers at a lavish party.

It is clear from the onset that this is a film that doesn’t bow to familiar conventions such as a narrative and story; instead the events unfold like the random memories of our protagonist, flitting back and forth between time frames at random, running concurrently with Jep’s modern day crisis. This will put off viewers looking for that immediate hook while others will find themselves caught in the torrent on the moment.

The end result is that many subtleties of the subplots will get lost among the retro-stream of consciousness of Jep’s journey. Those in his social circle not too wrapped up in their decadent but lucrative lifestyles to notice how ridiculous they are seem to slip into the same disillusioned funk as Jep but unlike him they take action while he continues to search for the titular “great beauty”.

Where the script and often abstract approach to the story might divide opinion, the one element that is guaranteed to keep the viewer mesmerised from start to finish is the gorgeous visual presentation. Sorrentino employs sweeping camerawork to cover every inch of Rome, be it bathed in glorious sunshine, pouring rain, our under the shimmering moonlight, the city could easily be considered a legit member of the cast.

The overall veneer is suffused with bright colours and uniquely lit set ups, complimenting the careful framing and composition of shots, many creating the impression that we are watching a photo album and not a film.

The cast is rather extensive and the fact they are mostly over forty (some well over) and naturally hugely dislikeable, making the satire work at a deeper level, something Hollywood would never do. On occasion this lack of amiability come close to applying to Jep, with the odd lapse back into old habits while trying to redefine his life but Toni Servillo manages to keep Jep as a fairly centred chap, coming across, to me at least, as a more self-aware Larry David.

To be frank, I am not quite sure what Sorrentino’s intentions are with The Great Beauty – whether it was to pay tribute to Rome or to cast a wry eye over the excessive behaviour of Rome’s vain intellectual elite; whatever it is there is no question this is a wonderfully enigmatic and visually stirring film of high artistic merit. Perhaps not for the mainstream, fans of classic Italian cinema will be richly rewarded by this modern homage.