Nov 15, 2013
The Great Beauty
A cinematic tour de force, this meandering tone poem to Rome and Italy by Paolo Sorrentino, like his movie Il Divo, resists categorization. Very reminiscent of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, it centers in the character of Jep Gambardella, played by Sorrentino's frequent collaborator, the great Toni Servilio. Jep is a jaded, cynical, well to do journalist, and elegant dresser (he wears the most astonishing bespoke clothes) who lives it up until late every night and gives us a tour of the haute demimonde of present Rome.
The movie starts at dawn, with a flock of nuns among the crumbling ruins. A Japanese tourist suffers cardiac arrest, while an angelical choir sings in a bell tower. Then Sorrentino cuts to an astonishing sequence at a party which has such verve, energy and authenticity, it sucks you in completely. This is one sweaty, vulgar, ostentatious affair, decadent as all Roman parties seem to be in Italian movies. It is here that Jep makes his first appearance. It's his 65th birthday, and there he is, surrounded by crumbling aristocrats, newfangled social climbers, media clowns, etc. Like a vampire, he lives by night, and though he is alive with curiosity, he seems permanently exhausted and disenchanted with L'Italia.
There is a plot in this movie, and a lot of humor, but Sorrentino's style is closer to that of a lush, well-funded music video. That he managed to deconstruct the political life of Giulio Andreotti in the excellent Il Divo with this kinetic style is a testament to his chutzpah and his enormous talent. He is a startlingly original filmmaker; a Terrence Malick on steroids.
Sorrentino takes his sweet time introducing us to Jep's laid back lifestyle in a series of breathtaking set pieces, enhanced by an equally breathtaking soundtrack that brilliantly combines the tackiest party music (stuff that only Eurotrash could love), with choral music and a lovely score. The sound design and the editing are masterful. So don't be fooled by the apparent looseness of the story. Sorrentino is a gifted artist. Even though he resists the encumbrances of mechanical plot points and tight structures, the movie is coherently mapped out. It's a magnificent ride into the dilapidated heart of Rome.
At some point, Jep takes a prostitute (the daughter of an old friend, as it turns out) on a private tour of the most secluded Roman palazzos, and in a cavernous one, they wander into a bunch of old principessas playing cards. It was in that sequence full of Roman busts and centuries old art collecting dust, that I was struck by the realization that Rome was born decadent. It is as decadent now as it was during Mussolini, the 19th century and all the way back to Nero and Caligula. It is the city with the longest decline in history.
Sorrentino takes fun stabs against a sybarite Cardinal from the Vatican who loves talking about food but has no patience for heartfelt personal confessions, and teases us with the appearance of a purported ancient saint bound by a vow of poverty, who stays at the tony Hassler hotel and complains of discomfort, since she is used to sleeping on the floor. There are also crooked entrepreneurs, aristocrats you can rent for the night, and wealthy, smug communist party members. Sorrentino's witty, at turns loving and exasperated ode to Rome does not go down expected paths, and always comes up with surprises. It seems that nothing in Rome is what it seems.
The saint turns out to be legit, even though she has a creepy minder that behaves more like a rock star business manager. In his many wanderings, Jep visits a Dantesque plastic surgeon's office where people go to get Botox injections as if they were eating the host at communion. The holy surgeon happens to also give spiritual advice; even nuns come to see him.
The Great Beauty is a film about an aging city, an aging Roman and a crumbling society but it is full of life and love for Rome and the crazy mess that is Italy. It is an experience to behold, hence it is worth watching it on a big screen with a great sound system. Let The Great Beauty wash over you in all its vulgar, lively, amusing, enervating, tragic, decadent glory.