Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

After premiering at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and competing for the Palme d’Or, Paolo Sorrentino’s (Il Divo, This Must Be The Place) The Great Beauty is now representing Italy at the Academy Awards as one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. It is a dazzling celebration of the films of Federico Fellini (8 ½, La Dolce Vita), an often-baffling exploration of Rome, of the social elite residing within and one man in particular who has become distracted from his art and lost the ability to recognize and passionately invest himself in the beauty of his surroundings.

Immediately striking in this film, like in the delightfully odd yet undervalued This Must Be The Place, is the relationship between unconventional camera activity, and unique auditory accompaniments. Sorrentino wants his style to be on show in every scene. The opening sequence is incredible. With a backing gospel-chorus DP Luca Bigazzi’s camera floats across fountains as if it is dancing on the water’s surface and over the spires of churches and iconic monuments. No cut is where we expect. We witness an incident involving one of a busload of tourists before we are taken to a pumping rooftop party and introduced to Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, Il Divo), a charming and distinguished elitist and socialite who has been living comfortably on the wealth and glory of his legendary first novel from decades earlier.

Now a social commentator and critic, Jep intermittently writes cultural columns, hosts lavish parties at his apartment (which overlooks the Coliseum) and is firmly embedded in the city’s elite literary circles. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. He is acutely observant, and in intelligence, appearance and poise he is intimidating and demands attention. After celebrating his 65th birthday, he learns some news about his first (and only?) love, which prompts him to reminisce on his life, and reconsider his hedonistic, decadent lifestyle in search of richer fulfillment in the absurd and the exquisite of the everyday. He comes to realize why he has never been able to write another novel, as he laments on just how empty his existence really is. He has put stock in his evaluation and appreciation of art; pieces constructed by his contemporaries, and the rich history of the city, but does that come close to filling the voids – squandered potential, no family or legacy – that he is has begun to mourn?

There is a sense of the unexpected throughout every frame of this film. It is the kind of film where anything can happen. I didn’t want to leave the cinema during the extraordinary final credit sequences because I sensed Sorrentino still had something to reveal. There are instances where a giraffe disappears and a flock of flamingoes migrate to Jep’s porch for example. It’s odd.

The most profound human relationship in the film unexpectedly comes through Jep’s companionship with a stripper named Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), whom he invites along to his parties and even privileges her to a dead-of-night tour through Rome’s most beautiful galleries. He has a friend with a key to these off-limits wonders. Blessed with such access we question what Jep finds so unfulfilling. Well, having spent his life discussing the trivial worth of others’ work with fellow intellectuals, yet failing to create personally, Jep’s sense of having earned his superiority is slipping away.

His world is beginning to change. One of his oldest friends is about to leave town, he is reminded of a long-lost love, of whom he learns has never stopped loving him, and he surprises himself by crying at a funeral, something he declares completely improper. While there is an emotional power to this film, it is buried beneath the sheen of Sorrentino’s sensory buffet, yet creeps through unexpectedly.

This is my second introduction to Sorrentino (the other being This Must Be The Place, which I adored) and I recognize similarities between the two films in that he is studying strange individuals who are all-but ‘has beens’ but whose influence from their former glory is still prevalent. They take a very personal journey of enlightenment, troubled by something that daily decadence cannot heal.

A lot of this film has stayed with me, and Jep is undeniably a fascinating individual – a man who can afford to simply exist day-to-day, because he is at the top of Rome’s social life and a source of news, and yet he has lost sight of what he truly cares about. Is anything in his life really worth living for? What does it mean? He claims at one point that one of his most admired writers tried and failed to write a novel about nothing, and he dismisses his own chances as futile.

I admit, Sorrentino began to lose me in the second half, introducing some very weird spiritual elements that tested my patience. There are unclear conclusions to episodes and the montage-style is so scattershot you can blink and miss something. The party sequences are visually splendid but could have been trimmed. This is undeniably an indulgent film, a repercussion to the enormous ambition of creating a film of national (and historical) significance, and while the film is layered with many ideas to long ponder it takes on the pretensions of its protagonist a little too much.

Sorrentino defies many cinematic conventions with this fascinating film, an ode to great Italian filmmakers of old, and a musing on how artistic inspiration can be influenced by life itself. It is an elusive study of a hedonistic elitist numbed by a life of decadence, but through a uniquely Italian lens. The glorious photography and haunting sound design leave an impression, Servillo is wonderful, and simply being a part of his private world, and his late search for ‘The Great Beauty’ makes for an engrossing experience. It is a challenging one for sure, and I can offer no advice on how to dive in - other than to do it - but an exhilarating one.

My Rating: ★★

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