The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty

(La Grande Bellezza)

-Film Reviewed by Lisa Umhoefer

Few films call for an instant replay. The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is spectacular. Seeing it once won’t be enough for some audiences, and many will consider immediately returning to the box office to purchase tickets for the very next showing.

The film opens with a female choir singing in a tourist spot in Rome, Italy. The angelic music, the heavenly views and the strange quietness of the scene woo the audience, until the mood is suddenly interrupted when an Asian tourist suffers a fatal heart attack. Gradually, the shock of the tourist’s death fades, and the singing and stunning photography of Rome resume. A powerful introduction, viewers immediately register that they are on a tragic and comedic footing. The Great Beauty meditates on the joys and thrills of life and living, without which there can be no death.

Enter Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), the film’s central character. He is first seen celebrating his 65th birthday in lavish and eccentric fashion. Jep arrived in Rome 40 years previous, wrote a novella that garnered him some fame and then spent the next four decades following his dream of not only living the party life, but controlling the city’s party culture.  His desire is to decide for all what is hot, and to become the chief authority on this subject.  His fabulous apartment, with its large balcony lying directly across from the Coliseum, is the perfect spot to host large drug and alcohol-fueled binges. The age range of the party, which varies wildly from young to old—all free and sensual—is a refreshing sight for American eyes, where audiences rarely witness anyone over 21 enjoying themselves with such liberty on screen.

Critics have argued that The Great Beauty pictures the gross debauchery of Rome’s elite, perhaps romanticizing it to excess.  While wealthy and ostentatious characters are featured, they certainly are not the exclusive topic, nor are they pictured as single value characters who are either all bad or all good. Jep, in his wandering, encounters old friends, including those that still work in strip clubs to make a living.  Life is not easy for anyone, audiences discover in sad detail, but it can be beautiful for everyone as well. Jep’s romantic encounter with the daughter of the friend from the strip club is a wonderful depiction of the variety of love that can come from one person knowing another, if only a little bit.

The Great Beauty has been compared to La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini. The comparison is apt on some levels, especially concerning the visual circus of images, but this film offers more humility and focuses on the importance of each individual man and woman’s life. At one point, Jep is hosting his friends in a quiet discussion in his backyard. After being chastised by one woman for his drifting ways, he brings her down to earth. “We’re all on the brink of despair,” he defends his lifestyle in a manner shocking in it’s bluntness, yet eloquently spoken. “All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little… Don’t you agree?”  Clearly he believes his  lack of ambition is less a flaw than it is a conscious decision.

The company this film offers is superb. The images are breathtaking; the camera swoops and moves within Jep’s world, reassuring audiences as though they are being rocked in a comfortable cradle. Meanwhile Jep’s narrative merges with Luca Bigazzi’s brilliant cinematography, offering a parental voice that earns each viewer’s trust and sympathy.

There is not much in the way of overt drama or action, but this does not detract from the experience of this film. On the contrary, Paolo Sorrentino has crafted a coherent world that illuminates life’s most transcendent moments. Exploring the powerful emotions of heartbreak, embarrassment, longing, even exuberant happiness, audiences witness a majestic, though human life story play out and will feel drawn into the splendor and colors of every scene.


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