Director: Paolo Sorrentino
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Sometimes one just has to admit defeat. I have been struggling for a week to write a review of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, looking for a way to open the review that will give a flavor of what I think Sorrentino is up to with this film, trying to find an artful method to link scenes that illuminate each other, grasping for an economical use of words to convey the themes and impressions Sorrentino has laid out for us. I’ve changed things up over and over, found myself writing a detailed synopsis instead of a critique, forgetting more about the film than I can countenance, and looking at other reviews for memory jogs and inspiration. Interestingly, I have found most reviews of the film to be extremely short and somewhat simplistic, seeing it mainly in terms of its resemblance to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1961) or commenting on the great party scene that comes near the beginning of the film. I think all we critics are at a loss to really come to terms with this sprawling film whose story seems fairly confined, but whose real character is epic in scope, a Lawrence of Arabia (1962) focused on the whole of Italian culture from the Roman Empire to the 1960s heydays of Italian cinema.
A character in The Great Beauty says that the only industries for which Italy is known today are food and fashion—a country of grocers and garment workers. Abhorring this loss of creative stature, Sorrentino not only has tasked himself with the usual artistic challenge of finding a way to express his times in an authentic way, but also seems determined to return Italy to a place of cultural prominence. His work is complicated by the fact that the history of Italian culture is so long and laden with genius—his efforts are bound to look derivative if he works on a grand scale, or unambitious and forgettable if he goes small and personal. That he has chosen to take on some of the giants of Italian culture—Michelangelo, Dante, and Rossellini, to name but a few—and that he has found not only specific, but also transglobal ways to comment on the human condition circa 2013 is a cause for celebration. Sorrentino may just wake the sleeping giant that is Italian cinema.
The film begins with an epigram from French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Journey to the End of Night: “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” This quote brought to mind a film to which The Great Beauty bears some resemblance, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002). In the latter film, a 19th century French nobleman escorts an unseen person (aka, the audience) through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg on a tour of Russian history. The journey ends with the unseen tourist moving forward, leaving his historical guide behind. This, I believe, is Sorrentino’s purpose—to survey the past, present, and future in a kaleidoscope of images and feelings.
A rather startling opening depicts a group of Japanese tourists on a guided tour of Rome stopped in front of a church located at a high point in the city. As their guide talks to them about the church, a group of nuns sing in a capella harmony near an open balcony. One of the tourists separates himself from the group and takes a few photographs of the city below. He begins to perspire and then collapses. Was it heat prostration, a heart attack, or a swoon brought on by the overwhelming beauty surrounding him? In one moment, Sorrentino has communicated his mixed emotions about the project about to unfold. He follows this up immediately with a bacchanal of the first order, letting us know that he has thrown caution to the wind and will do his best to fulfill his promise to us and himself.
The party, an extraordinary set-piece in a film filled with extraordinary set-pieces, is celebrating the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a journalist as well known as the famous and infamous people he interviews for a magazine published by Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), a middle-aged dwarf whose small stature belies her substantial influence. In homage to Fellini, Sorrentino stocks his party with people of every shape, size, countenance, and age. They writhe to techno music, some alone in a trancelike state, others in pairs or groups, and one on display behind a window moving to an internal rhythm because, as we learn in a shot from her point of view, she cannot hear the music on the other side of her glass cage. A helicopter shot of the party shows it lighting and scoring the night sky, a dazzling, pulsating organism that remains tantalizingly out of reach.
Jep is an older version of La Dolce Vita’s Marcello imagined at the crossroads of a life lived in disillusionment, a superficial creature who produces nothing of lasting value. His moments of triumph constitute little more than being a minor mover in high society, his ambition not just to be invited to the right parties but also to have the ability to make parties fail, whatever that means. That Jep might have been more consequential becomes something of a sick joke, as person after person asks him when he is going to follow up his well-regarded first novel, “The Human Apparatus,” a piece of juvenilia about the woman he loved and lost that sated his appetite for fiction writing when he was in his 20s. At 65, he knows “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do.”
Jep seems sincere in his desire to lead an authentic life, and he becomes a mirror breaker in denouncing the vacuous and fraudulent. An unsatisfactory one-night stand with a beautiful, idle-rich woman (Isabella Ferrari) who complains about not being good in bed garners the blunt pleasantry “to be good is to risk becoming deft” and abandonment when she goes to get her laptop to show him the selfies she posts on Facebook. Jep rips apart a conceptual artist (Anita Kravos) whose act is to head-butt a wall and shout something angry. And when attacked for his superficiality by a woman (Galetea Ranzi) who claims to be a productive, principled torchbearer of socialist ideals with enough fortitude to take the truth, he pleads with her to “pass the time with us nicely,” and failing that, punctures her smug self-regard with her own hypocrisy and failure. Sorrentino, it seems, is fed up with what passes for profundity in Italy, as well as the veiled bourgeois aggression that causes blossoms of beauty to wither in despair.
In the main, however, Sorrentino finds inspiration in the beauty of the past and rather than attempting to imitate it slavishly, pays homage in ways that feel surprisingly fresh. He turns Dante’s The Divine Comedy on its head by having Jep act as the guide through rarefied Rome for Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the 42-year-old exotic dancer with whom he starts keeping company. The commodification of art and the wunderkind is critiqued, but the results extolled in a scene in which a child artist is forced to create a masterpiece for her parents’ party guests—and, after a tantrum, does.
Ingrid Bergman’s menacing encounters with statuary and the ashen outlines of the victims of Vesuvius in Roberto Rossellini’s Journey in Italy (1954) are contrasted as Jep and Ramona trek through the palaces of the ancient princesses of Rome with the keymaster (Giorgio Pasotti) who safeguards their keys. We take in the artwork that fills the otherwise useless rooms—massive sculptures mixing with paintings and objets d’art. When a stunned Ramona asks the keymaster why the princesses entrust him with their keys, he says, “Because I am trustworthy.”
Such simple statements that Sorrentino seems to want us to take at face value are strewn throughout the film like pure drops of wisdom in a visually intoxicating house of mirrors. Jep often stares at his oval ceiling and sees a blue, inviting ocean, painting an undulating fresco with his imagination like a latter-day Michelangelo. When Jep asks a magician who has made a giraffe disappear if he can do the same for Jep, the magician cautions him that it is merely a trick (in fact, a CGI trick of Sorrentino’s). Jep is still vulnerable to the deceptions of the glittering creatures and night life that have absorbed him for so long. Indeed, in a somewhat gratuitous tip of the hat to French cinema, Sorrentino includes a cameo of Fanny Ardant. There is something naively sweet about her appearance, however, as Jep the jetsetter seems genuinely starstruck when he encounters her. This moment adds to the winsome charm Servillo brings to the role.
Jep’s ultimate deception revives when the husband (Luciano Vigiloof) of his lost love Elisa (Annaluisa Campasa) comes to his door with the devastating news that she has died. “She always loved you,” he says to Jep. Reminded of his life before the drive to be the center of the in crowd, Jep returns in his memory to the day he was almost run down by a motor boat, the day Elisa took his virginity. She is achingly beautiful to his mind’s eye, but after 40 years, it’s likely that Jep’s memory has sanded the rough edges of his past and retouched the imperfections of his “perfect” love.
There is more than a touch of melancholy to Jep’s passage into old age, as his inscrutable grin cracks into unseemly tears at the funeral of a young suicide victim (Luca Marinelli), a breach of etiquette he has warned Ramona about. Ramona herself eventually succumbs to whatever she told Jep she was using all of her money to cure, leaving Jep without his protector. Ferilli’s incredible presence, a stranger in this strange land, made her absence from the rest of the film a real loss for me.
In the last act, a burlesque critique of the church, Jep seeks wisdom in vain from the fatuous, spiritually dead Cardinal Bellucci (Roberto Herlitzka) and witnesses a 104-year-old Mother Teresa knock-off named Sister Maria (Giusi Merli) huff and puff and blow a flock of migrating (CGI) flamingos off a terrace where they were resting and preening. The hard turn into religious ridicule threatens to undercut the overall tone of the film, but it comes so late in the film that it doesn’t inflict lasting damage.
Servillo offers us a sympathetic figure that could have turned tragic in another actor’s hands. He longs for that clean slate that Sorrentino is scraping at while maintaining the lessons that age has brought him. When his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) succumbs to nostalgia, his choice is to leave Rome, which has “disappointed” him, to return to the village he abandoned 40 years before. Not Jep. He won’t write another novel, but his hope that he might brings his rite of passage to something of a close. I look forward to seeing if Sorrentino’s next film will prove that he has shaken the dust of the ages off his camera lenses. I am rooting for him.