Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Great Beauty Is Gorgeous and Exhausting

Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty / Janus Films
The Great Beauty / La Grande Bellezza
(Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2013, 
142 mins.)







In his Golden Globe-winning film, Paolo Sorrentino, writer-director of the fantastically baroque Il Divo, turns his penetrating gaze from an Italian leader, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, to an Italian city, Rome. 

Both films are cynical, yet gorgeous, which might sound like an oxy-
moron, except I choose to go with his flow, a compelling combination of bravera camera work, artfully selected music cues, and playful perfor-
mances (I missed his English-language debut, This Must Be the Place, which looked like a misfire what with Sean Penn in Robert Smith drag).

Sorrentino's take on The Eternal City presents its leisure class in a manner that recalls Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, though things get so grotesque at times that he slides into Luis Buñuel or Terry Gilliam territory, especially when he depicts a frenzied grade-school action painter or a gaggle of wealthy dowagers waiting for Botox treatments at a dramatically-lit nightclub (to SoundOnSight, Sorrentino demurred, "
La Dolce Vita is a masterpiece. La Grande Bellezza is only a movie").  

Poster image from Midnight Marauder
The novelistic narrative revolves around 65-year-old man-about-town Jep Gambardella (Il Divo's Toni Servillo), a 21st-century successor to Marcello Mastroianni's suave, linen-clad journalist, Marcello Rubini.

Despite having only one novella to his name, Jep lives in a stunning, crane-festooned apartment overlooking the Roman Colosseum. When he isn't attempting to interview conceptual artists, he naps, drinks, parties, and gossips. When accused of misogyny, he claims he's a misanthropist. 

I'm not sure that either claim is true. If anything, Jep seems genuinely interested in people, just not especially invested (later in the film, it transpires that he's still mourning a lost love). During the expansive running time, he cavorts with a stripper and a socialite, and he doesn't make idle promises to either one. Further, he reports to a female editor (Giovanna Vignola), and he doesn't take issue with her gender--or with her stature (she stands three feet high).

Consequently, I didn't find the film as cynical as some viewers, but it didn't knock me out the way I expected it to either. If anything, the repetition of certain themes and visual images--the nuns, the tourists, the empty conversations--becomes wearying after awhile, though this may have something to do with the fact that I watched it over the course of several weeks (and in two different states) due to a hard drive crash and a hectic holiday schedule. Where other people saw a movie: I saw a miniseries

As ever, though, Servillo is terrific, and he's reason enough to see the film, which also received an Oscar nomination. I've been wrong before, but I predict a win, and I hope it inspires moviegoers to catch up with previous Servillo titles, like the chilling Gomorrah. If The Great Beauty didn't cap-
ture the Rome I got to know, however briefly, in 2009, Servillo has come 
to represent his country now as surely as Mastroianni did in the 1960s.  

 

Because Seattle can't get enough of this thing, The Great Beauty is currently playing at SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave N) and Crest Cinema Center (16505 5th Ave NE) through 2/27. The Criterion Collection will be releasing the film on DVD and Blu-ray on 3/28. Extra features include deleted scenes; interviews with Sorrentino, Servillo, and screenwriter Umberto Contarello; and an essay from Phillip Lopate.

2/27 update: the film's run has been extended at the Crest through 3/7.