I don’t know if Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” is the best Foreign Film Oscar nominee(it did actually win that award, as well as the Golden Globe and the BAFTA)of this past ceremony, or not—but I believe it’s the finest of the three I’ve seen so far(“The Missing Picture” and “Omar” have been unobtainable as of yet). It’s shamelessly Fellini-esque, and somewhat evasive—but it packs a powerful punch of ennui and regret. It’s really something I wish I had experienced on the big screen, because it has pulsating dance music and gorgeous location shots of Rome. If it just misses in its quest for greatness, it’s not for lack of trying—it’s the kind of film that has an ambition that outreaches its material. But something tells me that it will reward repeat viewings, as well as age rather nicely. Plus, Toni Servillo(in a 180 degree departure from his role in Sorrentino’s “Il Divo”)provides a wonderful, nostalgic turn as our “hero”, Jep Gambardella.
The look and feel of “The Great Beauty” majorly enhances what is a somewhat familiar narrative plotline—that of a man entering his senior years and realizing how disappointed he is with much of his past. Jep Gambardella(the wonderful Mr. Servillo, in his fifth go-round with Mr. Sorrentino)is a writer who has mostly wasted his talent, instead concentrating his life on being a renowned partier and socialite. Jep did author a celebrated novel some forty years prior, but spent the ensuing decades coasting on his fame, writing cultural commentaries, and throwing lavish parties. Jep pines for lost love, laments his poor choices, and searches for the elusive great beauty in a decadent and illusory world. Jep has seemingly accepted this world full of “parlor tricks” and avoidance of reality. And the wastefulness of it all is the source of a concluding rush of melancholy. Jep has long accepted his self-imposed imprisonment in this cesspool, and the increasing unlikelihood of a final reprieve.
Rome has certainly been the filmic ground zero for decadence many times before, perhaps most celebrated via Fellini’s iconic “La Dolce Vita”. Sorrentino gets much of the feel of, and homage to, that epic work just right. But he also drags it firmly into the 21st century with its begrudged acquiescence to things that a half century prior served as a cautionary tale. There’s even an astonishing, opportunistic image of Jep overlooking the doomed, half-sunken Costa Concordia, complete with all the humanistic metaphors that sight implies. Luca Bigazzi is a marvelous cinematographer(I adore his work on 2011’s “Certified Copy”), and his camera work here is integral to the mood of this narrative. And I don’t mean to imply that “The Great Beauty” is some dour remembrance journey. On the contrary, it’s bawdy, lively, funny and grotesque. It’s a sharp satire that skewers obvious targets like high society, as well as sacred totems like Mother Theresa. When it’s not being “La Dolce Vita”, it’s unmistakably Fellini’s “8 1/2”, with its collection of blue-haired dwarfs, knife throwers, buxom women and ebullient celebrations. Ultimately, “The Great Beauty” charts a chronological downward-spiraling graph. It’s contemporary and alive, and uncommonly savvy, with an outlook as bleak as it is vital. It’s growing in stature the more I reflect. And that is a very positive endorsement of its quality. Grade: A-