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‹ Flicks with The Film Snob

The Great Beauty

February 17, 2015
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greatbeautySelf-confidence doesn’t seem to be a problem for Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. His latest picture, The Great Beauty, winner of the foreign language film Oscar this year, opens with amazing audacity. After a prologue featuring a choir singing weird ethereal music near the great fountain of Acqua Paola in Rome while Japanese tourists snap photos, we cut to the wild dancing excess of a huge nighttime party, with lavishly and bizarrely dressed jet-setters gyrating to a techno beat, and only after some ten minutes is the party’s host and the film’s subject, the famous writer Jep Gambardella, revealed, smiling and smoking a cigarette while his guests, now in slow motion, dance around him. It is, as it turns out, his 65th birthday party, and during this lengthy sequence we also meet quite a few of his friends and acquaintances, the spoiled aristocrats and literati of Rome.
Jep, played by the marvelous Toni Servillo, made his name publishing one novel a long time ago, and then never wrote another—what little work he accomplishes now is in the capacity of a critic and journalist. The question of why he has never tried to write another novel is a persistent one—the only answer he attempts gives the movie its title: he is searching for something worthy to write about, what he calls “the great beauty,” the ultimate goal of the artist. The great beauty is also, it would seem, the city of Rome itself, depicted in gorgeous, intense, widescreen color by Sorrentino and his cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi.
The film meanders with Jep through this decadent landscape, taking satiric shots at everything from politics to modern art to the Roman Catholic Church. This humorous perspective is seasoned with a sense of mournfulness and regret.
Now that old age has announced itself, Jep is beginning to recognize the emptiness and futility of his life. He thinks he might have found something like love in the arms of an aging stripper played by Sabrina Ferrilli, but the news that a woman he loved unrequitedly as a young man has died fills him with painful nostalgia for what he can never attain. His situation reminded me a little of Truman Capote, who lost his ability to write after being absorbed into the lifestyle of high society. A more inevitable comparison arises, both in style and subject, with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but with a main character now older and cynically wiser.
One name that goes conspicuously, and I think deliberately unmentioned, is Silvio Berlusconi, the notoriously corrupt politician who has dominated Italy for two decades. The tacky, sex and celebrity-obsessed media culture fostered by Berlusconi is one of the film’s main targets. Yet underneath all this, thanks to the fine, sensitive work of Toni Servillo as Jep, is a serious portrait of a man, reflected in the failure of his promise as a writer.
When The Great Beauty played here in Tucson, way back in January 2014, a friend told me that it was important to see it on the big screen. I didn’t take the hint, unfortunately, but it was still very rewarding to marvel at the picture in the form of its recent incarnation as a Criterion DVD, and in time for me to praise it as one of the best films of the year.

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