In preparation of Paolo Sorrentino’s new relase Youth, we look back and review his last mastepiece, Oscar winning The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza).
Sorrentino’s love letter to the films of Fellini, The Great Beauty is saturated with decadence and hedonism, which transports you right into the centre of Berluscini’s Rome and into the superficial, leisured life of the Italian bourgeoisie.
The film opens with glorious, picturesque scenes of an early morning Rome, a postcard paradise. Whilst a female choir sings in a colonnade, a coach load of tourists arrive to soak up Rome’s great beauty when suddenly a Japenese tourist with a camera drops dead – was it the overwhelming beauty of Rome or was it just a standard heart attack? Is this writer/director Sorrentino (This Must Be The Place, Il Divo) suggesting that too much beauty can be paralysing and how closet are death and beauty connected? A question that seems to be of prominence throughout The Great Beauty. We then cut to a women screaming and as the camera pans to a 65th birthday party is revealed, so elaborate that it gives Baz Lurhman a run for his knee in the race of cinemas’ most lavish, flamboyant festivities. At the centre of the tale (and the debauchery) is Jep Gambardella (played by Sorrentino’s favourite leading man, Tony Servillo) an ageing socialite and once time novelist, who spends his breezy life writing columns for cultural magazines and partying in late night soirées. Jep tells us through self-meditating voice-over that he “wanted to be the king of high society” and that he has succeeded. However, after his 65th birthday, his life appears to be aimless and have no purpose. Following a visit from his first love’s husband, Jep is prompted to take a look back at his youth and reflect on his previous relationships and failures and to view his world through a new set of eyes.
When we are first introduced to Jep, he is smiling at the camera, dressed in the finest suit, gyrating on the female party-goers and of course, smoking. A self proclaimed “misanthrope” – not a misogynist – it’s clear from the get go that Jep seemingly has it all; an enviable apartment overlooking the Colosseum, money, women throwing themselves at him, a solid reputation on the Rome social scene. however the further we delve into Jep’s life, the more we realise everything is not everything. One of the triumphs of The Great Beauty is the complex performance by Tony Servillo, who manages to be both self-deprecating and self-assured in the role, particularly in his voice-over. Jep is very much the showman and the entertainer – the complete opposite to the austere and highly disciplined character we see in Sorrentino’s other films such as The Consequences Of Love and Il Divo. Paolo Sorrentino and Tony Servillo have a long standing partnership and friendship, having worked together on four previous pictures. This trust and bind shows in abundance, with Serbillo able to take Sorrentino’s character and run with it to create the Jep that sticks with audience for quite a while.
Those acquainted with the previous work of European film festival favourite Sorrentino may be surprised at the empty narrative of The Great Beauty, coming from a filmmaker so accomplished a storyteller. Much like the films of Fellini and Antonioni, the film is much more of a character study than a plot driven narrative . What we don’t have here is a clear cause and effect sorry (if that is what one is expecting, then you’re set for some disappointment), what we do have is a mediation on the lives of a niche set of people, represented here by Jep and a story full of ambiguity, where the lines between reality and dreams becomes blurred. Do not think though that the lack of clarity and tidy narrative means The Great Beauty is all style over substance; it is style AND substance; where the anti-narrative, along with the gliding,ms weeping cinematography (from frequent Sorrentino collaborator, Luca Bigazzi) allows the viewer to free-fall into the borders of the surreal and the bizarre.
One may criticise The Great Beauty for itmore than blatant likeness of Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, as the similarities of the two are uncanny. The immersive, visually stunning but garish style come straight from a Fellini guidebook, complete with carnivalesque characters (Jep’s blue haired, self-proclaimed dwarf,mediator to name but one). The protagonists of both respective films, Jep and Marcello, who both happen to be journalists,makos serve the same purpose; to guide the audience through the decadence of bourgeois Roman life of their eras and acting as the satirical voice of their auteurs’. And much life Fellini, Sorrentino managers to remain non-judgemental in his satires. I’m an interview with The New York Times, Sorrentino touches upon the likeness of La Dolce Vita, explaining that it “is a film that tries to understand the meaning of life, in a world that is losing this memory” which he believes is a sensation happening now in Rome,mane that The Great Beauty is an exploration and outcome of that sensation, rather than a clear homage to Fellini’s work. Though some may perceive The Great Beauty as a direct update of La Dolce Vita, I believe it is much better to view as a companion piece,Mike two book-ends; where one is about a younger man losing his soul and the other about an old man trying to reclaim his.
Coming in at a little under two and a half hours, the meandering take may be too much of a feat for the average cinema goer; however the stunning visuals and the homages to classic Italian cinema, The Great Beauty is more than enough to delight any cinephile who is willing to become head-first submerged into Sorrentino and Jep’s Rome.