Not unlike the Japanese tourist who kicks off Paolo Sorrentino’s latest cinematic feast by collapsing under the scenic force of his search for the great beauty of Rome, I find myself more than a bit overwhelmed.
The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)
The Great Beauty is just that; an imposing tribute paid to a city, an age, a mindset, and a certain tendency in Italian cinema. It’s also the greatest echo of Fellini since Mean Streets.
Disillusionment kicks into high gear in the days following the 65th-birthday blowout for celebrated journalist Jep Gambardella. Played with a mournful comic pall by Tony Servillo, Jep Gambardella is Sorrentino’s answer to La Dolce Vita’s Marcello Rubini, and damn if Servillo’s idler doesn’t rival that of Mastroianni. A self-described “transparent person, without a doubt,” Jep, who has been living a life of moral decline for going on 40 years, suddenly finds himself surrounded by dead things.
Jep never did pen a follow-up to his well-received first novel because his search for the great beauty proved to be more enjoyable than honest work. He discovered early on that topping the invite list was but a drop of the draught needed to quench his thirst for dominance. The power to destroy in print those parties he found displeasing became the motivating factor needed for this wastrel to wake up every afternoon and get out of bed.
Fellini’s characters were prisoners of their own decay. Sorrentino’s glamour mob takes great pride in flaunting wealth. When asked what she does for a living, one of the plastic beauties quickly replies, “I’m rich.” Jaded Jep took the phrase “ruins my view” to heart when shopping for apartments. He is the only person in film history to have a penthouse that overlooks the Coliseum.
Jep lives life with a calm ferocity, always ready and eager to reduce a fatuous interview subject to tears on a whim. Seated at a dining-room table, comforting the husband of a deceased lover, Jeb ignores the colorful terrycloth towels and napkins at his side and removes a black silk handkerchief from his back pocket for the man to blot his tears. It could be the most tasteful and genuinely sympathetic act of humanity in the entire production.
Comic relief arrives in the form of a mummified 104-year-old mother superior whose sole tip for longevity is “eat your roots,” something these cannibalistic roysterers have been doing for decades. Made up with just the right touch of Westmore latex, her third-act appearance opens the floodgates for a torrent of hilarious jabs at the Catholic Church.
There is enough electricity in Servillo’s performance and Sorrentino’s elastic camerawork and boomerang editing patterns to power three features. Still, Beauty occasionally falls victim to its own excess. The fact that these insatiable partygoers won’t vamoose until after it’s “all gone” is made clear from the outset. The numerous scenes of pogo-dancing revelers that follow the initial bash are redundant.
Sorrentino’s nostalgic arrow to the past never finds its bull’s eye: the title conceit of the great, lost beauty is rather flimsy for such a sophisticated main figure. I’m not certain that beauty was the film’s only target. As one of the film’s more sympathetic sycophants points out, nostalgia is “the only distraction left for those who have no faith in the future.” I’ve seen only three of Sorrentino’s narrative features and This Must Be the Place, his bid for Hollywood recognition, doesn’t count. Based on The Great Beauty and Il Divo, I have every bit of faith in Sorrentino’s future as a major cinematic artist.