Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Great Beauty (***1/2)

La Grande Bellezza
Written and Directed by Paolo Sorrentino


The Great Beauty has Federico Fellini's fingerprints all over it. The specter of Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini's most famous acting collaborator, haunts all of its images. And yet, Paolo Sorrentino's latest film feels so incredibly fresh and crisp. It's both a love letter to Fellini, the most beloved of all Italian filmmakers, and announcement of the country's new crop of directors. It spends nearly its entire 142 minutes in a delicate balancing act between homage and grandstanding - the film's trying to preen and also stay humble. The film takes place in Rome, one of the world's most famous and beautiful cities, and like Fellini, Sorrentino loves exploiting its lavish landscapes and astonishing architecture, but is not above prodding the city for its religious hypocrisy and materialistic culture. The film opens with a deafening club scene, everyone who's on the floor is dancing because it's too loud to talk. The lights are bright and a variety of colors, the clothes are extravagant. In the middle of it all is our protagonist, an active participant in the festivities.

Our protagonist is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a former novelist turned culture journalist. That club scene that opens the film is actually the scene of his 65th birthday party, but he seems to show no signs of slowing down. Jep has one novel to his credit, and it's to the movie's credit that we never truly learn whether it is any good or not. All we really know is that people wanted him to write more. But Jep never did, instead preferring the party life that he became accustomed to. You can't seriously write a book while staying up till dawn every night. Jep cashed in his artistic license early and has been living off his reputation ever since. In all the decades after his one and only book, Jep worked toward embedding himself deeply into Rome's powerful social and literary circles. He writes lazy columns and sleepwalks through interviews with eccentric artists, but most of his effort is put toward the after hours, where he mingles with high-minded aristocrats. Some spot him for what he is, but those who challenge him must withstand the fury of his silver tongue. He may be one of the most powerful men in the entire city.

Soon after his birthday, he is approached by a grieving man who's wife has just died. He tells Jep that he is the man that his deceased wife truly loved. Through a secret journal, the grieving man learned that his wife spent her entire life in love with Jep and only spared a few measly pages to her actual husband. Jep remembers this woman. They dated briefly when they were both very young. Jep can visualize the first time that he saw her on the beach, the first time that they made love. She was a great beauty. But she was the one who ran away from him and he could never find her. Why spend your life pining and married to another man? The encounter shakes Jep and for the first time in a while, he begins to question his life of devious festivities. He looks left and right for an escape, but Jep spends a good deal of The Great Beauty moving in circles and standing right back in the place where he started. He begins spending time with a middle-aged stripper, Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), with whom he seems to share sincere feelings. But even that relationship de-materializes in mysterious fashion. After a while, it appears Jep may be trapped in by the suffocating of his favorite city.

Discovering why the dead woman left him so long ago becomes Jep's main focus over the course of this film, but Sorrentino shows himself adept at weaving various other strands of narrative throughout, almost all of them speaking to the condition of Rome, which is shown to be in a state of arrested development. Nearly everyone we meet is high society, usually judgmental. Like Fellini, supporting characters pop in and out of the story and seem to represent ideas instead of being full, four-dimensional human beings. We're privy to both a giant CGI giraffe and an entire flock of CGI flamingoes before the film finishes. Sorrentino's satiric bite isn't nearly as strong. It's one thing to pick on Italy for pious high-mindedness, it's another thing to produce the opening scene of La Dolce Vita which displays a statue of a resurrected Jesus being floated over the city on wires like P!nk at this year's Grammys. The Great Beauty is never quite that cruel, because its feelings towards Rome a lot more loving. Jep feels like he needs to leave this city to become his better self, but it's clear throughout the film that he never really wants to.

The Great Beauty is one of the most singularly well-made films I've seen in a while. It's camera seems to be constantly roving, but not in an obvious way. Shot by Luca Bigozzi, the film knows how to contrast the beautiful and the grotesque, the wondrous and the damning. Servillo, especially, is framed in so many beautiful images in several different ways. At one point, the camera simply turns upside down. The film's music, scored by Zbigniew Preisner, is astonishing, using lush, romantic strings to give the movie one of its few strains of heart. This is Sorrentino's sixth feature. His last film, This Must Be The Place, starred Sean Penn as a retired rock star and Robert Smith doppelganger trying to find and kill the former Nazi who tortured his father during World War II. He doesn't seem very interested in the basic storytelling material. He seems preoccupied with provoking reactions with high-concept plots, which I think is always a good thing. He's seemed to find a performer in Toni Servillo who's willing to realize his ideas - the two worked have worked together three times now. I don't think that his best film is past him yet.

The Great Beauty is spiritually so close to Fellini's two most popular films, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. Like Vita, it puts it protagonist in an elongated party for the entirety of the movie. It never sticks to one spot too long, because there is something more raucous going on elsewhere. Like 8 1/2, our protagonist is agonizing the value of his life, flipping through his mental rolodex of past loves to see if he has ever found the one. The movie was Italy's submission for the Foreign Language Oscar and it ended up winning the nomination. It seems to be in front runner status at the moment, with only The Hunt kicking up any noise amongst the nominees, but you never do know how those awards are going to go when it comes to the specialty categories like documentary and foreign language. But it makes sense why this would be so beloved in American circles. It feels familiar enough to cinephiles to make a real impression. Its wonderful performances and astounding visuals account for a lot, but it's the homage that really makes The Great Beauty quite beautiful in its own right.

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