Image source. Copyright Medusa Film, 2013.
In terms of undeserved obscurity, you can’t do much worse than The Great Beauty, an Italian film only Oscar fanatics remember for winning the 2013 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. A shame, both for the movie and all the viewers who miss out. The multifaceted, peculiar, quasi-surreal world director Paolo Sorrentino depicts here may not be flashy or appealing on the surface, but it will forever change the way you look at the Eternal City and modern society. In its own bewildering, chaotic way, The Great Beauty undoubtedly lives up to its name.
The Great Beauty owes a fair amount of its power to the repeated homages it pays to La Dolce Vita, the greatest work of Italy’s most beloved film director, Federico Fellini. Fellini depicted a 1950s Rome bustling with impotence, superficiality, emptiness, but which still retained a strange, inexplicable, immortal allure. Sorrentino’s film takes Fellini’s Rome and thrusts its values and ideas straight into the sick, beating heart of the 21st century. Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is an aging writer about the celebrate his 65th birthday. In his life, he’s written only one novel, but one that, from the way his friends and mere acquaintances rattle on about it, permanently altered the course of 20th-century literature. Never mind Jep hasn’t put a single word to paper for the last 40 years; with such success, all you need to do is grab its coattails and try not to fall off.
Jep has always been aware of his failings, the way his life has slowly unraveled into what he calls a depressingly dull “worldliness.” But for 40 years, he’s always somehow managed to rationalize his unhappiness away. Now, on the cusp of entering the twilight of his life, this self-proclaimed “king of the worldly” finds himself musing on the steady line of missed opportunities and relationships lost that dog the forlorn timeline of his life. Adding to his disorientation: the abrupt discovery one rainy morning that the wife he divorced 35 years ago continued to love him to her grave, even after marrying another man. For Jep, longtime bachelor, frequenter of nightclubs, theater critic bored to tears with his job, this midlife crisis couldn’t be more perplexing.
The worst part of The Great Beauty lies in the somewhat confusing, stream-of-consciousness way Sorrentino depicts Jep’s dilemmas and ponderings. Sometimes, that means crucial events don’t carry the weight they should; you find yourself spending energy just trying to figure out what’s going on. You occasionally feel just as befuddled as poor Jep. And yet that’s also the best part of The Great Beauty: the disorganized way in which, step by step, recollection by recollection, Jep advances towards a higher understanding of his role in life. Think 8 1/2, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: the thoughts literally mold the course of the movie. In one scene, for example, Jep dives underwater a melancholy 65-year old, and emerges a sprightly 26-year old, transported back to the time he first saw his one-and-only wife on the same beach. The turmoil running through both Jep’s and your head manifests itself in every frame of this mental, spiritual odyssey.
But The Great Beauty never gets bogged down in its eccentric meanderings. Sorrentino, in the midst of such weirdness, expertly uses the cinematography to tether our wanderings to the movie’s greater theme. Fellini would be proud: here’s camerawork that, in its own detached way, exposes the blatantly paradoxical repulsiveness and attractiveness of Jep’s existence all at once. The shots of Rome’s greatest tourist attractions bare of visitors, imposing monuments that, without the mobs of cameras and selfie sticks, look strangely empty, stun with their ability to capture the moribund yet timeless appeal of a city now overtaken by ephemeral, trivial desires. Repulsive promiscuity, empty holiness, values degraded: the eternal truth of old now finds itself buried underneath layers of distortions and frivolous tributes.
Look carefully, however, and you’ll see that the truth isn’t gone: it’s still there, beating hard. You just need to know to look. This is what Jep realizes, and it’s what you realize, too. Sorrentino inserts just the right amount of wistful emotion to make this movie, at its core, the story of a longing, discouraged, broken heart. In his youthful past, right before he became an adult and entered his world of dispiriting cynicism, Jep learns to find a kernel of authenticity, a flame to reignite his final years in the city that both made and broke him. It’s the kind of unfulfilled desire that seems right out of Cinema Paradiso, the classic Italian film about stifled, genuine love. Without any melodrama, Sorrentino’s ending convincingly, impeccably weaves all the loose threads of Jep’s limp existence into this moving reawakening. The nostalgic, yearning soundtrack under-girding his entire metamorphosis is just the cherry on the cake. As Jep puts it himself, the novel he always wanted to write, but never could, finally can begin.
The Great Beauty, against all odds, illuminates you. You’re illuminated by the quiet but beautiful cinematography, the gentle, loving tributes to Italian films of old, the happiness you feel as you watch Jep move from ennui to despair to eventual peace. It’s a film about meaninglessness that ends up being just the opposite because of the delicate, tender way Sorrentino allows the film to unfold towards something greater. A fitting homage to Italian cinema of old, and certainly a touchstone for Italian cinema to come.
The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) (2013)
Starring: Toni Servillo
Running Time: 135 minutes
Produced by: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima
Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino
Written by: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello