Movie Review: The Great Beauty
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
When I was a kid growing up in a small town in the Deep South, I used to dream about what it might be like to have seen the European premiere of movies like “La Dolce Vita.”
Now I know. When Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty’ (“La Grande Belleza”) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, it captured the ennui of modern-day high-society Rome in a stunning, touching and remarkable way.
It’s obviously an homage as well as an update on such classics as “Roma” and “La Dolce Vita.” The story centers on a wealthy writer who wrote a great novel in his early days but who has partied away his youth and is now in middle age. He hasn’t written anything but magazine articles since his early success, and there’s a spiritual gap in his life — moving from lover to lover and from one outlandish party to the next.
The character bears more than passing resemblance, of course, to Marcello Mastroianni’s journalist in Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.”
Toni Servillo plays the writer, Jep Gambardella, who lives in a magnificent, terraced flat that overlooks Rome’s Colisseum. The view is spectacular, and the parties that occur on his terrace are way over-the-top, with throbbing techno music, elaborate costumes and numerous “dance train” sequences, a la “La Dolce Vita.”
The occasion for the movie’s central party is Jep’s 65th birthday, and he’s clearly taking stock of his life — finding wry absurdity amid one of the most ravishing landscapes in the world. He’s also mourning, because he has just heard that the love of his life has recently died, and we see the two together as teens during flashbacks.
Multiple characters move in and out of Jep’s current life, but nearly all are high-society. And it seems that people merely dabble in the arts, while Jep looks on in wry bemusement.
Theatrical set pieces feature a naked woman whose performance art consists of running into a wall, as well as a sad playwright who can’t get anything on the stage, so he does readings in front of various social groups.
Jep, meanwhile, is asked at nearly every party why he hasn’t written another novel. He doesn’t really have an answer, but he often tries to blame Rome, saying it hasn’t inspired him to write another novel. He also notes that he has spent the better part of his life merely going from one party to another.
Throughout, Sorrentino makes pointed jabs at current Italian politics as well as the Roman Catholic Church, whose local cardinal refuses to discuss faith and turns every conversation toward his culinary adventures.
One of the most beautiful set pieces involves a midnight stroll through the most famous art museums of Rome, courtesy of one of Jep’s friends, who has the keys to nearly every building that houses the city’s art treasures.
The movie isn’t perfect. It’s longer than two hours, and many Americans will find some of the dialogue obtuse or obscure. But “The Great Beauty” will become one of those movies that will be discussed over and over again in future college courses.
(Most of this review was written and posted on the Austin360.com movies blog during the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013. Since then, “The Great Beauty” was selected as one of the five Oscar nominees for the best foreign-language movie. It will be competing against Belgium’s “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Cambodia’s “The Missing Picture,” Denmark’s “The Hunt,” and the Palestinian film “Omar.” The final five were selected from 76 submissions.)