by Allan Fish
(Italy 2013 142m) DVD1/2
Aka. La grande bellezza
All the rest is just disappointment and fatigue
p Francesca Cima, Nicola Giuliano d Paolo Sorrentino w Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello ph Luca Bigazzi ed Cristiano Travaglioli m Lele Marchitelli art Stefania Cella
Toni Servillo (Jep Gambardella), Carlo Verdone (Romano), Sabrina Ferilli (Ramona), Carlo Buccirosso (Lello Cava), Iaia Forte (Trumeau), Galatea Ranzi (Stefania), Pamela Villoresi (Viola), Franco Graziosi (Conte Colonna), Giorgio Pasotti (Stefano), Aldo Ralli (Cardinal), Giovanna Vignola (Dadina), Roberto Herlitzka (Cardinal Bellucci), Isabella Ferrari (Orietta), Giusi Merli (Sister Maria),
Though set in the present day of Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, The Great Beauty is a film that takes you back. And it’s appropriate that it does so, because it doffs its hat to the art-house intellectual cinema of the 1960s that, with very few exceptions, now seems a lifetime away.
The lifetime in question here is Jep, a native Roman who is celebrating his 65th birthday in the way he celebrates everything in his life, with a loud party. Since he published his first and only novel 40 years previously, partying and living a life of professional leisure has been his life. All changes when he hears the news that his first love, who rejected him for reasons that remain unclear, has died. While flashing back to a beach encounter at dusk when he was 18 and she 20, he wanders about Rome looking in equal measure for a purpose to go on, distractions, divertissements, and the looking up of an occasional old friend. His journey will take in nightclub owners, a cardinal who cannot stop talking about how to cook meat, a fortysomething stripper, his female dwarf editor, and even his neighbour who, it transpires, is one of the world’s ten most wanted.
Jep initially comes across as cynical and carefree, but while he may realise that his life and those in it are empty and amount to nothing, he does little about it. He merely stands on the sidelines watching the masses dance away to the monotonous music belted over the music system, dancing as though their lives depended on it, as if their stopping would cause the earth to come off its axis. This is the world of Facebook, botox, poses, pouts, selfies and moral bankruptcy, spectres of people living in the minute because they cannot bear to think of even the morning after. A feeling also expressed by a couple kissing, as they have been for days according to his friend, tongue-locking and moving back and forth like Hasidic Jews rocking while they recite the Torah. There’s a paradox here, though, for in a film about empty lives and empty existence, each of the characters Jep meets on his travels is so fully formed they could be the centre of their own movies.
At times the narrative veers on the precipice of the surreal and even the avant garde, but even then a point is being made, as when locals applaud a pretentious so-called artiste called Talia Concept who doesn’t even understand her own musings and convinces people that stripping naked to reveal pubic hair dyed to match the flag of the Soviet Union and then sprinting to head-butt an ancient aqueduct is high art. In another unforgettable scene, a centenarian nun, a sort of mummified oracle, talks to a flock of flamingos on Jep’s balcony. There are scenes that cannot help but recall Antonioni and Fellini, who let us not forget were at their peak when Jep would have been young, but it’s more than just a homage. It’s a film that shows that Rome hasn’t changed much since Anita Ekberg frolicked in the Trevi fountain, with a constant heartbeat provided by the immaculate career-best performance of Toni Servillo, that genetic mix of Robert de Niro and Philippe Noiret, as the protagonist watching his world go bye-bye. Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps more pointedly does it need to be? No, on both counts, yet it’s a film of such rich surface visual pleasures – one might say appropriately in a society where the surface and the façade is all there is – that criticism is disarmed and almost redundant. Just savour it then for what it is, the best 21st century film of the 1960s.