Tuesday, April 7, 2015

La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)


Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writers:  Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
Cast:       Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli
Language: Italian

Jep Gambardella has seduced his way through the lavish nightlife of Rome for decades, but after his 65th birthday and a shock from the past, Jep looks past the nightclubs and parties to find a timeless landscape of absurd, exquisite beauty- i.e. underneath all the blah, blah, blah....

Jep moved to Rome after writing his first and only novel, Human Apparatus, which is considered as a masterpiece. Since then he has lived the high society life in a prolonged semi-retired state writing cultural columns and interviewing arty-farty people for a lifestyle magazine. You can obviously draw comparisons with the Fellini masterpiece 'La Dolce Vita', but Jep is someone who is much higher in the food chain when it comes to Roman socialites. As he states in the film, he didn't just want to attend parties but wanted the power to make them fail. The shock from the past comes when a man, who was his first love's husband, comes to him and informs him of her death. He also tells him that Jep was her only true lover and she considered her husband just as a great companion. The incident serves him to reflect on his own life which seems unfulfilled. Being a self-aware person, one would think that it is something that he would have already thought of but it does seem to trigger something more. 

Sorrentino gives us a series of scenes through which we get a glimpse of Jep's lifestyle, which very much involves him attending many art events most of which are pretentious and hollow. Jep is at a stage in his life where he can see through all the bullshit. In a scene where he verbally undresses a socialite who masquerades as a writer, he states:

"We're all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little... Don't you agree? "

He is also contemptuous of people around him including himself and he sees things like funerals as a high society event where you need to hit all the right notes to appear nobly sorrowful without stealing the bereaved's thunder. He also proceeds to quiz people from religious institutions but one senses that he already know that they are also similar to how his friends are.The final encounter is with a Mother Teresa like nun who celebrates poverty which her PR bandwagon amplifies tenfold. She is 104 years old, the same age Mother Teresa would have been if she was alive at the time when  this film came out. She is also portrayed as someone who pushes the agenda of institution she belongs to and is evident when she claims to know the Christian names of migrating birds who are taking a rest in Jep's balcony. That said, she is not put down to the extent that others were. There is no big epiphany for Jep, but a gradual sense of enlightenment as he reflects on things. He tells her that he didn't write a second novel because he was looking for the great beauty which he was not able to find. The film ends with him reminiscing about the first sex he had with his only true lover and stating:

"This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah... It's all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise, silence and sentiment, emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world, blah, blah, blah... Beyond there is what lies beyond. And I don't deal with what lies beyond. Therefore... let this novel begin. After all... it's just a trick. Yes, it's just a trick. "

This was my second viewing of this film which I considers as the best one from 2013. You do get the feel that director is taking us into Jep's shoes, who is basically the director himself, and see the world through his eyes. So it is basically an observational film with an anthological feel rather than one with some plot revolving around a protagonist. Stunning visuals/cinematography and soundtrack are a given in Sorrentino films and Tony Servillo is great as always. Sorrentino can really film a party scene with the first one in the film lasting close to eight minutes or so. I have't seen the Sean Penn starring 'This Must be the Place' and didn't enjoy 'Il Divo' that much. 'Consequences of Love' and 'Family Friend' were both excellent but 'The Great Beauty' is indeed my favorite Sorrentino film.

Rating: 5/5