4 / 5 stars
Italy’s official Academy Award entry for 2013 has a dreamer’s heart, a lover’s passion, and Fellini’s soul. Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) is a lively, often fantastical journey through Rome, seen through the eyes of one of its aging bon vivants, an easygoing writer who takes it all in from both crowded parties and lonely street corners. The film’s slightly heavy length and loose narrative won’t be to everyone’s tastes; but the endless charm, the boundless creativity and Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography are inarguably wondrous. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
For Sorrentino, there are visual, aural and emotional surprises at every fete, and along every pathway in Rome. The city is at the beck and call of one Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, Il divo), a once-promising novelist whose career never materialized, a content sort who now interviews self-important performance artists for a newspaper. After a brief intro including choral music and Asian tourists, our story begins at Jep’s 65th birthday party, an outdoor mega-bash packed with friends, dancers and a strolling mariachi band battling with pounding house music. The camera sweeps and dips, adding to the energy; when it sits still, we’re in the midst of the body crush. There are writhing women, ogling men, and a dwarf.
But Italian fantasy has been updated by realism. The little person is not some surreal part of the whirring circus; she’s Jep’s boss, a firm, opinionated woman who shares a meal with Jep in her office, and attends dinner parties with a practically mute introvert as her man. Sorrentino, who co-wrote the script with Umberto Contarello (they collaborated on This Must Be the Place), essentially calls his own bluff on the dreamy surrealism or intellectual discourse that pulses through his film, bringing in authenticity without sacrificing the beauty.
In fact, Jep himself is the in crowd’s honest conscience, a guy free of façade who does the bluff-calling for us. When the conversation at a small evening gathering is hijacked by a woman rattling off her accomplishments and struggles, Jep knocks her down to size–after politely asking if he may, of course, gentleman that he is. Though the scene is visually quiet, it’s one of the film’s most stunning, thanks to Servillo’s warmth and steadiness as an actor, and Sorrentino’s calm as a storyteller.
Amid this uncommon honesty and color, The Great Beauty begins dancing on the edge of repetition as it heads toward the two-hour mark. Each vignette’s heightened energy and artistry keep the film engaging and on-course, but it feels like Sorrentino risks getting caught in the very conceit he does such a wonderful job ridiculing.
When the director (left, on the set) has Jep taking in his beloved city—and perhaps he is sometimes just wandering—Sorrentino gives the film its magic. It can be a simple, beautiful frame composition. Or an emotionally evocative camera move, sweeping through a garden as children play and Jep watches from afar. It can be the emptiness of a woman’s bedroom or the late-night appearance of a giraffe in the streets. And it all has meaning, both to us and to Jep.
The city is Jep: friendly, experienced, accessible, maybe even predictable in its older age. Servillo plays the epitome of old-world European charm for the modern era, a humble, nicely dressed man with a kind word, an easy smile, the perfect walking rhythm. When Jep is in his own home, Sorrentino smartly limits his actions, placing him in his kitchen to playfully banter with his maid or in his couch-turned-bed, where our protagonist stares at the ceiling and imagines moving sea and sky.
A place with a roof is no place for a man the likes of Jep Gambardella. His life may not be one of grand successes, but he knows where—and more important, how—to find the beauty in his world. Within Paolo Sorrentino’s Rome, our lovely hero is in exactly the right place.