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Film Review: The Great Beauty

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013; Directed by Paolo Sorrentino)

For the first quarter or so of its running time, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty richly earns the grandiose aesthetics of its title. From the opening montage of slice-of-life tableaux of modest modern activity amidst the aging monuments of the Eternal City of Rome, literally every shot for the film’s first half-hour or so is ravishingly beautiful, as well as the vast majority of the shots thereafter. You will delightedly wait in vain to witness a composition that it not impeccably lit, balanced in colour and shadow, flawlessly framed, and deeply evocative of any number of internal and extrapolated meanings (the glorious cinematography, it requires noting, is by Luca Bigazzi). Sorrentino’s visual virtuosity, always operating at the service of his exploration of those meanings, does eventually relent, as he will occasionally leave aside the Old Masters imagistic lustre and golden ratios to simply block out actors in a room talking to each other. But the wonders don’t stop for long; they are merely carefully apportioned for maximum affect.

There can be a critical tendency, when noting the pure aesthetic quality of a film’s images, to separate that value from the film’s other processes such as narrative structure, pacing, dialogue, and performance. Whatever beauty a film summons up, this line of thinking might go, it is not necessarily essential to the operation of these other functions, a sensually pleasing but still supplementary element in the total package of a film. It seems counterintuitive to say so; film, after all, is a predominantly visual medium. And perhaps this critical framing of visual splendour is driven by the films being examined themselves, whose makers don’t necessarily possess the totalizing talent, visionary intelligence, and prodigious technical prowess to craft a cinematic panorama as reliant on the eye as it is on the ears and the mind.

Sorrentino does possess those gifts and those abilities, and The Great Beauty is a stunning demonstration of his self-possession as a film artist. It is not only that, however. Sorrentino arrays the full sumptuous seductiveness of cinematic aesthetics to interrogate the utility of aesthetics to life in Rome, in Italy, in our schizophrenic modern world; to sketch and qualify the dimensions of that elusive titular beauty, in broad, bold strokes. His chosen vessel of observation and consideration of these dimensions is an aging, prominent, mildly dissolute bon vivant Roman socialite and man of letters named Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), known for a well-remembered novel decades before with the Umberto Eco-esque title The Human Apparatus that he has never had the requisite ambition to follow up on. Jep re-examines his life and his city and the implications of his persistent but ephemeral presence in both of these ungraspable entities on the dual occasions of his 65th birthday (which follows the sun-kissed vistas of historic, tourist-strewn Roman sites that open the film with an exuberant strobe-lit debauch of a rooftop dance party, a visual mixture of joy, grotesquerie, and the surreal) and the revelation of the death of the first woman he loved.

Jep’s movements in Rome don’t so much follow a narrative through-line, but are structured as an episodic series of encounters and witnessings, conversations and observations. His desperate, exasperated friend and literary agent Romano (Carlo Verdone) pushes Jep to publish a book of his celebrity interviews under the title Visions and Revisions, and this title could describe Sorrentino’s conception of his protagonist’s journey (which “is entirely imaginary, which is its strength”, per the commencing epigraphical quotation from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night). The vision of The Great Beauty is, in its own way, a revision of Federico Fellini’s seminal La Dolce Vita, also about a gossip-magazine writer proceeding through a litany of desultory episodes in a sensual and tantalizing but forever unsatisfying Rome. It also, for that matter, echoes older Italian literary touchstones, from the descent through the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno and the satirical colloquial tales of Boccaccio’s Decameron to the writings of Gabriele D’Annunzio (Romano, literally man of Rome, plans to present D’Annunzio’s selected writings on the stage), a prominent fin de siècle poet, dramatist, and novelist whose ideas formed the backbone of Italian Fascism after World War I.

D’Annunzio’s earlier-career embrace of the intense pleasure of decadence certainly influences Jep’s (and Sorrentino’s) understanding of Roman life. The opulence of the high society and cultural events that Jep observes is matched only by their evaporating unimportance; even a funeral, that most solemn recognition of our own mortality when faced undeniably with that of another person, is largely a matter of custom-bound social performance. Jep and his circle of acquaintances bemoan Rome’s relative status as a cultural backwater in modern Europe, yet they subsist amidst smothering privilege and ostentation. Political conviction and the comfort of wealth are contrasted in Jep’s teardown of his friend Stefania (Galatea Ranzi) over friendly rooftop patio drinks, the professed proletarian ideals of the Italian Communist Party of which she is a leader rendered laughable by her decadent lifestyle. Rome is just such a foolish, tragic contradiction to Sorrentino, but no less achingly beautiful for it.

The Great Beauty is built of sequences revealing this inherent contradiction in terms at once satirical and elegiac. Sorrentino places Jep in one such scenario after another, sometimes cynically sniffing at their absurdity, sometimes marvelling at their poignancy. Jep watches a performance artist drape her naked body in a white sheet and run headlong into an ancient stone aqueduct; he observes a harrassed, exploited young daughter of wealthy art dealers theatrically hand-paint on a stretched canvas for a crowd of partygoers; he chats with a stage magician making a giraffe disappear amidst classical ruins; he sits in the opulent waiting room of a supercilious plastic surgeon who collects obscene sums to swiftly inject his clients with collagen; and he is strangely moved by a photographic installation by a man who has taken a picture of himself (or had a picture taken of him by his father, before he could do so himself) every day of his life. In between, he connects fitfully with his housekeeper, the widower of his youthful lover, a middle-aged exotic dancer (Sabrina Ferilli), and his circle of friends, his companions in daily delusion. He even stands, at one point, before the capsized hulk of the Costa Concordia, summoned by Sorrentino as a singular image of Italy’s latter-day tragic embarrassment and cowardly diminishment as a touristic simulacra of its long-faded glory as Europe’s once-indispensible civilization.

The Great Beauty looks these myriad beauties, as well as their attendant sorrows, square in the face, but it doesn’t attempt to make sense of them as anything more than an astonishing litany of feasts for the eye that, however we choose to philosophize on them or rationally quantify them, add up to life unto death. These images outlive us, however, be it on cinematic celluloid or on the semi-ruined face of the Eternal City. This strange permanence amidst impermanence, this sense of inherent ephemerality under the august aegis of immortality, pervades Sorrentino’s understanding of Rome, which is to say his understanding of life.

The monolithic institution that has persisted longer than any other in immortal Rome, the Catholic Church, has long intellectually justified itself as a collective framework for understanding “the great beauty”, for deciphering transitory temporal existence in terms of the promised permanent immortality that is said to follow it in the life beyond this inescapably fallen one. It has frequently done so in tangible terms through the visual arts, an indulgent tendency that was fuel for the Reformation but also the engine of the Baroque art of the Counter-Reformation that left such an indelible aesthetic mark upon the Rome we see today. Baroque art celebrated observable beauty in the world as proof positive of divine providence, glorying in the exquisite flesh disdained as sinful by prim, chastizing Protestants with their whitewashed houses of worship and fearful iconoclasm. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, reified material reality in its commissioned art with a fervour that might have been (and sometimes was) construed as shockingly erotic had it not been redeemed by a patina of piety.

Through Paolo Sorrentino’s eyes, Rome is the ideal holy fleshpot of lapsed-Catholic hedonism. The Great Beauty is flamboyantly neo-Baroque in its conception and execution, in its borderline-heretical refusal to separate the flesh from the spirit. This is not to say that Sorrentino sees the Church as not being prone to the same shrunken decadence as any other element of Roman culture and society: Jep meets a Cardinal whispered about as the heir apparent to the papacy who can offer him no spiritual advice, only detailed culinary recipes. But he also has a climactic meeting with a Mother Theresa-like living centenarian saint (Giusi Merli) who sits on his balcony facing the Colosseum, surrounded by a resting, magic-realist flock of migrating flamingoes (one of the most inspired images in a film swimming in them). She challenges Jep to face up to his life and his past and perhaps to write another novel, a task far more daunting for him than the 104-year-old woman’s planned ascent on her knees of the Scala Sancta as a testament of her devotion and faith.

Sorrentino’s critical side-eye at the impious, ladder-climbing high clergy and the poisoned institutions of the Church, convulsed as it has been by a scandal of faith-shaking proportions, is leavened by his generally sincere portrayal of Sister Maria’s selfless prostration to a governing humility (although he does give her a slimy sycophantic spokesman who elaborately sings her praises as well, hinting that her saintliness is a publicity creation). But he also shows Jep being beguiled by giggling young sisters at a city convent, running through manicured gardens at play with a local boy, a lovely and carefree melding of simple pleasures and deeper, thornier convenants of belief. The Great Beauty‘s aesthetic philosophy of life is simultaneously lighter and heavier than that of Roman Catholicism, which Paolo Sorrentino, announcing himself as a modern master filmmaker with this rich cinematic work of art, comprehends as a key tile in the cracked but beautiful mosaic of life in Rome.

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Categories: Art, Film, Reviews
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