Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013)

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a journalist playboy drifting through Rome’s glamorous nightlife. At the age of 65 he is still partying like when he was 26 and first arrived to the Italian capital. The only book he wrote, L’apparato umano, is considered somewhat of a literary masterpiece, but he hasn’t produced anything noteworthy ever since. Jep knows a lot of people, important people, people who matter, and of course everyone knows him. When he arrived to Rome he wanted to become king of the party scene, and he did, but somehow he is not satisfied with the way his life has turned out, his love life in particular. The only girl he ever truly cared for left him and married someone else. When he finds out that she died, he is crushed. He starts reflecting on his life, Rome and all kinds of existentialist problems, but first he needs to party! 

La Dolce Vita is quite possibly my favorite film of all time, so when I say that Paolo Sorrention’s La Grande Bellezza feels like an unofficial sequel to Fellini’s masterpiece that should give you an indication of how much I enjoyed this movie. I’m inclined to gravitate towards anything that has existentialist undertones and prefers emotion and atmosphere to plot. The film starts with some amazing camera work. The camera moves so fluidly and incessantly it’s enough to make your head spin, but in the best possible way. The introduction to our main character Jep, played by the wonderful Toni Servillo, takes us to the heart of the party. It is a lengthy scene, but if the whole movie was just a long party sequence I would have no problem with it. Like Fellini, Sorrentino casts actors with the most interesting faces. While the hyper-trashy dance soundtrack puts you right in the middle of bourgeois decadence and their excessive lifestyle, the romantic orchestral score plays as a nice counterbalance during the quieter, contemplative scenes.

Aside from thematic, tonal and structural similarities with La Dolce Vita, this film also shares the same sense of humor. While dealing with important and serious issues, the film never feels preachy or heavy, thanks to its good-natured sense of fun and love for its characters. La Grande Bellezza deals with a number of very adult and mature issues many films tend to shy away from or treat poorly. Lost love, regret, aging, spirituality, art and the meaning of life are just a few examples. The film’s attitude seems to be the one of its main character, in that it goes straight to the point cutting the bullshit, and telling   tells you how things are and how it perceives life without without any embellishments. If there is a point to this film it’s that there isn’t a point. Much like in life: What’s the point? Is there a point? The film seems to descend into Michelangelo Antonioni territory here, suggesting that everything’s empty.

While clocking in at well over two hours the film is never boring or slow. That is an achievement which I would like to attribute to Cristiano Travaglioli’s impeccable editing. The film’s grandeur comes from Sorrentino’s ability to frame every shot as if he was filming the greatest thing ever. Luca Bigazzi’s epic cinematography is something to behold and the film truly does look beautiful. Art direction, makeup and costume design are spectacular and worthy of praise and recognition, because Lord knows the Academy probably won’t. Although Sorrentino’s film Il Divo was nominated for Best Makeup in 2010, not that it won, but still. Teaming up with Toni Servillo once more proved to be an excellent choice for the director as the actor gave a stellar, but nuanced performance. The supporting cast headlined by comedian Carlo Verdone and actress/showgirl Sabrina Ferilli was surprisingly good, with some inspired performances, by two actors I’m not particularly fond of. Unfortunately, minor roles and I mean people who had to say one or two lines ranged from mediocre to terrible. Fortunately they weren’t given much screen time.

Overall, the film is a very satisfying experience that I’m sure rewards repeat viewings. Sometimes it felt like the director was trying to emulate Fellini too much, but of course wanting to be like the master himself is a minor flaw I have no problem forgiving. Some of the religious aspects of the film were treated poorly and with no payoff, although the fact that those scenes seemed useless may be the director’s intention, to serve as a statement on Catholicism and religiosity in a broader sense. At times the film felt very surreal and dreamlike, much like Fellini, and I’m not entirely sure those scenes worked cohesively and perfectly with the more straightforward narrative; however they were, at the very least, always gorgeous to look at.

Rating on First Viewing
(at my favorite art house)
8.5 out of 10


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