Far removed from Berlusconi and his bunga bunga parties, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is an important moment in Italian cinema.
For those who work in cinema, who write about cinema, talk about cinema, think about cinema, love cinema with profound, sometimes inexpressible depth, there are some films, often rare works of art, that transform you. These exceptional films leave you in a state of delirium, of grief and ecstasy, wanting to dance and wanting to cry. No one film fits all; one man’s transformative is another’s tedious. It is deeply personal.
The Great Beauty, which opened in the UK on Friday, is a very special film. And when I watched it last week, it was cinematic rebirth. Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, the greatest Italian filmmaker of this period, The Great Beauty cannot be done justice by a synopsis or a trailer. Sometimes there are films like this – so big that story is secondary, and plot an afterthought.
Sometimes there are films like The Great Beauty – so big that story is secondary, and plot an afterthought
The Great Beauty is about man’s pursuit of meaning, and the wonder of human experience. Jep Gambardella, played with considered intelligence and reserved passion by Toni Servillo, is a writer revered by his peers. Now he’s 65 and death may soon come, as it has done for his first love and the psychotic son of a friend. Jep reflects on life, and on art, and love and friendship, and on Rome, his raison d’etre. It’s a film of many questions but few answers, of much sadness but moments of transcendence. Jep’s decline, from celebrated novelist many moons ago to an elderly party animal of squandered potential, mirrors that of the city he loves. Sorrentino expresses the abstraction of time spectacularly, and also how, according his saintly non-saint, “roots are important”.
I could talk about a magnificent scene with a giraffe, or another with migrating flamingoes, or another with an angry artist child, or when a ceiling becomes an ocean. But I won’t say much more. The Great Beauty is more than food for thought – it’s a feast for the eyes, and the ears, and that brainy thing in between. It’s the best film of this year, perhaps the best film for several years. And in case you can’t tell, it really made an impression on me.
Other cinephiles are equally ebullient about this wondrous picture. The Telegraph called it “a shimmering coup de cinema to make your heart burst, your mind swim and your soul roar.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw celebrated it as “a pure sensual overload of richness and strangeness and sadness, a film sometimes on the point of swooning with dissolute languor, savouring its own ennui like a truffle.” The animated discussion on The Saturday Review was a fine demonstration of the divisiveness of this picture: two pundits passionately praising the picture’s profundity, another believing it both superficial and pretentious.
The Great Beauty is an interrogation of the cultural stasis of today’s Italy
Director Sorrentino’s ambition is a rare thing indeed, and it is this grandeur that will see the film endure. For The Great Beauty is more than a festival of spirit and sense, it is an examination of Berlusconi’s Italy, with allusions to the disgraced Prime Minister’s bunga bunga parties and the mystery of Jep’s neighbour, a government official. Furthermore, The Great Beauty is an interrogation of the cultural stasis of today’s Italy. This is the country of Dante and the great artists of the Renaissance (and beyond); when did Rome and it citizens become so comfortable with mediocrity?
La Grande Bellezza is an important moment in Italian cinema. It recalls Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and, with spectacle and subtlety, demands a rejuvenation of the Italian arts. Sorrentino says ‘look what we can do!’ and the audience, with great feeling and more than a little confusion, welcomes back this country of beauty and intelligence.
All images: Medusa Film