The Great Beauty (2013) *****
Dir. Paolo Sorrentino, Scr. Umberto Contarello
Starring: Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli
Review By Greg Klymkiw
I have a hard time imagining how anyone could not worship the exquisite perfection of Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, but then I try to think how I might have responded to it as a very young man. Is it possible I'd have responded to it the same way I actually did in my late teens and early 20s to Hitchock's Vertigo and Renoir's The Rules of the Game? These two pictures I admired, almost grudgingly, but respectively and highly preferred other seminal works by their directors like, say, Rear Window and The Grand Illusion. The latter titles offered easy ways in to their brilliance by opening their doors ever-so widely for me to respond more viscerally to them. But then, a funny thing would happen on my way to enlightenment: subsequent viewings of the former titles would come and go, yet with each passing year ever-accumulating waves of life experience would wash over me and allow me to begin responding evermore openly to the films.
Finding my own way through a Knossos-like maze, my maturation became the ball of string I'd left along the trail that would lead me back towards the films themselves and to discover their inherent greatness as art. Eventually, a screening of each would occur that'd hit me with the force of a gale wind and I'd achieve an explosive, near-orgasmic epiphany once the works' obsessions nestled perfectly in tandem with my combined years of sorrow, happiness, heartache, gains, losses, triumphs and failures. And indeed, this is what happened to me with Vertigo and The Rules of the Game. I suspect then, that I would indeed have a similarly fractious on-again-off-again relationship with The Great Beauty. The difference now, however, is that I experience Sorrentino's picture having already acquired the necessary life experience so that my first helping hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks and subsequent screenings spoke to me as loudly as any great movie I'd ever seen.
Each subsequent screening, several of them on a big screen at The Toronto International Film Festival 2013 proper, then during a theatrical engagement at TIFF's Bell Lightbox, would each peel back layer upon layer so that every viewing was as intensive as the last one, and then, more so. And now, the film exists on an absolutely perfect home video format thanks to the Criterion Collection: complete with one Blu-Ray and two DVDs - the emphasis initially being on the stunningly meticulous digital transfer to both formats and finally with the seemingly modest, but ultimately rich bonus features - detailed, inspirational and meticulously shepherded 30-40 minute interviews with director Sorrentino, star Servillo and writer Contarello.
This Criterion volume, then, is an object of both desire and perfection - a special edition if there ever was one and a great, beautifully designed box that serves to preserve the film for subsequent viewings and added features that enhance and enrich an already monumental experience and achievement. The Criterion Collection edition of The Great Beauty is a must-own item for anyone who cares about great cinema. And now, allow me to present a slightly expanded version of my original take on the film during its initial TIFF offering and eventual theatrical release via Mongrel Media, but now guided and influenced by my near-obsessive study of The Criterion Collection Director Approved edition.
* * * * *
Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty opens with a bang - literally. A cannon blasts right into our faces - its explosive force signalling the beginning of the greatest party sequence - bar none - in movie history. Not a single screen revelry comes even close. The first few minutes of this movie throbs and pulsates with the most gorgeous, dazzling, opulent images of triumphant excess ever to strut and swagger before our eyes. This polychromatic orgy of beautiful people and their devil-may-care debauchery is the kind of sordid, celebratory saturnalia that the movies seem to have been invented for.
The party isn't just debauchery for debauchery's sake (though I'd settle for that), but the sequence actually builds deftly to the utterly astounding entrance of the film's main character. On just the right hit of music, at just the right cut-point, our eyes catch the tell-tale jiggle of the delectable jowls of the smiling, long-faced, twinkle-eyed and unequalled sexiest-ugly movie star of our time. We are dazzled, delighted and tempted to cheer as his presence comes like an explosion as great as the aforementioned cannon blast.
Playing the former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, Toni Servillo knocked us on our collective butts in Sorrentino's Il Divo. Here, Servillo continues to electrify - this time etching a very different "Il Divo" - Jep Gambardella, the crown prince of Roman journalism. Jep is a one-novel-wonder, resting on the literary laurels of a single work of genius from his youth, who now, at this august stage of existence, has earned celebrity as a hack scribe of gossipy, sardonic puff pieces for one of Italy's most influential rags.
Jep is surrounded by a seemingly infinite number of losers who think they're winners, as well as a veritable army of the rich and famous and their hangers-on. We find Jep at the epicentre of the aforementioned on-screen party - one we wish would never end. Alas it must - at least until the next one. Rest assured there will be plenty more revelries, but between the indulgences, we follow the powerful and bored-with-his-power Jep as he reaches a crisis point in his 65th year of life. He knows he's not lived up to his promise, but he's still a master wordsmith and puffs himself up with his dazzling prose and his expertise at self-puffery.
He's surrounded by worshippers, but their adulation means nothing to him. Gorgeous women throw themselves at Jep, but he doesn't even much enjoy sex. He longs for a love that escaped him in his youth and tries to find it in the rapturously beautiful daughter of a pimp. His best friend, as best a friend that someone like Jep could ever hope for, is desperate to make a mark for himself as a literary figure but can only think of using Jep as a subject for a book.
Most of all, Jep seems happiest when he's alone. That said, even when he's surrounded by slavering hangers-on, he appears even more solitary than when he's by himself, but at least his private brand of emptiness is more palatable than the sheer nothingness of those in his ultimately pathetic coterie of nothingness - the nothingness of a ruling class who take and take and take all the excess there is to be had, and then some. Italy is on the brink of ruin, but the ruling class is in denial so long as they can cling to celebrity - even if that celebrity is in their own minds.
With The Great Beauty, Sorrentino is clearly paying homage to Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (with dollops of 8 1/2), but this is no mere nod to cinematic mastery (one which might even be working at a subconscious level) - he explores a world the late maestro visited half-a-century ago and uses it as a springboard into contemporary Italy and most importantly, as a flagrantly florid rumination upon the decline of culture, the long-ago loss of youthful ideals and the deep melancholy that sets in from Jep seeking answers to why the woman he loved the most left him behind to his own devices. Set against the backdrop of a historic Rome in ruins, the empire that fell so mightily, we're plunged into a dizzying nocturnal world as blank and vacant as the eyes of a ruling class that rules nothingness.
Finally, it is Jep's moments of introspection when he is alone most mornings, slightly hung-over and bleary-eyed, washing his face in public fountains, then casually strolling through the Rome he loves and where he observes simple beauty, often for the first and possibly only time. He clings to these moments as passionately as he clings to his memories of his one great love - the love that inspired his great novel and only novel. His odyssey is partially to discover and acknowledge the beauty and purity of that great love so that maybe, just maybe, he will write something again - something that matters, like the Great elusive, yet omnipresent Beauty.
Jep is clearly set upon an odyssey by Sorrentino - one that might have been avoided if he could only recognize what he sees in a mirror. Men like Jep, however, have a hard time recognizing the clear reality that stares them in the face and the final third of Sorrentino's masterpiece plunges Jep and the audience through a looking glass in search of a truth they (nor, for that matter, we) might never find.
But the ride will have been worth it.