The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino and the floating nature of beauty. (Film Review)
“To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.”
Journey to the end of the Night. Louis-Ferdinand Céline
This review / commentary gets a little personal, so my apologies in advance if it is a boring read.
Confession time. I’m not a Fellini fan, although I, like any film lover, appreciate him for his influence and his striking ability to capture a historical moment with perfection, I found Marcello Mastriani’s misogyny boring, and I am perhaps too “post-Christian-athiest” to forgive the Catholic assumptive pretext for films like La Strada which I have struggled through many times in order to cure myself of this terrible illness, only to find it doggedly remains. Every couple of years I return to Fellini and set myself down for a weekend, determined to see what I have missed before, but intention repeatedly conflicts with those parts of myself that were hard-wired at my mother’s breast that Fellini so openly rejects. As I said above, this by no means refuses my passion for his skill and influence, nor his ability to perfectly create a model of a cities aesthetic within his frames.
So it was with some fear and trembling that I approached The Great Beauty, a film unapologetically Felliniesque, but I sensed a connection in the trailers, and astonishingly, found the possibility of Fellini love within The Great Beauty itself. I wish I could communicate my “Fellini issues” with more elegance because Paolo Sorrentino seems to have anticipated them and built a film that bridges a gap between the old and the new that, remarkably left me wanting to see certain Fellini films again, that I will certainly revisit with a thankfully fresh eye.
Journalist Jep Gambardella (the breathtaking Toni Servillo) is celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday in a gorgeous, sumptuous party on the terrace of his Rome apartment that over looks the Colosseum. His famous parties involve the whose-who of Italian society, and in a voiceover a little later, Jep acknowledges that the driving motivation of his life, after writing a successful novel in his late twenties, was to be the sort of socialite who could not only throw the best parties, but who could ruin other people’s parties at will. However like a quite river cutting its way through a mountain, he finds in his sixty-fifth year that suddenly he is disconnected from this motivation, and his new perspective sees it has shallow and unworthy of a life’s dedication. Throughout the course of the film, he wanders Rome , attends social events, dates and talks with friends about love, nostalgia and the ephemeral present. A quiet vulnerability and sadness edges its way into his face as the film progresses, culminating in a spiritual awakening I the form of a Mother Teresa type of Nun coming to visit his home.
Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is a film about the death of decadence, the death of the pursuit of happiness, the future of Italy and the wild breathtaking history of Italy. It includes a remarkable connection to Fellini as a time gone by, but also as a memory upon which the present is manufactured, therefore as any historian will tell you, has created the present. But Sorrentino delves into the personal history, what he refers to as nostalgia which sits like a pleasant, indulgent sadness on the mind and in the eyes. Sorrentino’s answer to narcissism is beauty, and his answer to the hedonistic decades we have recently been indulging in is the pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake.
True to his ideology, The Great Beauty is a film devoted to the beautiful, from lovemaking, to spiritual transcendence. Bare with me when I tell you, I have rarely seen the spirit of Catholicism better revealed than in this film, and the soft, slow and patient journey toward a life of meaning. If you want to understand what people are hoping for when they attend Church, The Great Beauty is as close as you can get while standing on the outside of that particular fence and looking in. As groups of friends talk, injecting the conversations with observations from their perspective, Sorrentino’s camera strokes them lovingly, even in conflict or rage. As a result, his film becomes a kind of meditation on the nature of beauty itself. And who understands an irrational, pointless passion for beauty better than the Italians?
I am ashamed to say this is the first film I’ve seen with Toni Servillo. His cheeky, charismatic, intelligent Jep is the kind of character a viewer wishes they knew. He is immediately likeable with a charisma and charm that is the hallmark of the Italian male, his body a permanent flow of style and grace. Servillo and Sorrentino work well together, a deep intimacy flowing through them that comes out in the film. Servillo understands Sorrentino’s perspective and, as much as one can trust a brilliant performance, shares it with him. It’s one of the best performances of 2013, and reason enough to see the film alone.
It can’t be forgotten that Italy is a different place today, than it was in Fellini’s day, and it has suffered for its mindless excesses and continues to suffer politically and economically. Jeb looks over the Colosseum across the road from his apartment, at the old glory of Rome, and feels his life and his lifestyle slipping away. There are some political conversations between friends that reference this, lamentations for the flood of their best and brightest to London or New York, the redefining of a backward glance to absolve oneself of responsibility, but in the end Jeb knows they are riding the bike they bought, and his patient gentle swelling sadness seems to be the most appropriate response. And yet, Italy is the always, already beautiful, if only we have the courage to pause and look around us, and are willing to let the beautiful in to the point of our own anhiliation or death (as happens to one tourist at the start of the film).
The Great Beauty is long (so many long films made in 2013) but the time flies by, even if it takes the viewer a little while to get into the film’s rhythms. The patience is rewarded: also this is a film where you must sit through the closing credits – but you will want to anyway. The viewer who takes Sorrentino’s offered hand will be rewarded with a climax that will take you as close to the sublime as a film can go, not to mention an immersion in parties so richly entertaining one can understand why a lifetime was devoted to them. It’s a cinema film, try to see it on a big screen if you can, but see it on a small rather than miss it. The Italian’s have long been an example of an enviable passion to those of us in the West (I remember as a teenager being shocked, excited and fascinated by all the fist fights that broke out on my train travels through Italy) and Paolo Sorrentino shows us that the passion remains and that it always meant more than chaos.