(As some of you may remember, I made a vow to stop reviewing all of the movies that I watched for my blog a while back. And that still holds true. I decided to only review films that I give an “A” or an “A+” too because I just don’t have time to write 1000 words about all of the other movies that I watch. And the “A” and “A+” films are films that I’m going to have plenty of substantive and, hopefully, interesting things to say about. Anyways, this is the first film to get an “A” since I made that decision, so here we go. I’m probably rusty at this.)
I’m only 25 years old, and I have already lost countless of hours of sleep thinking of what could have been and what I should have done differently. I don’t necessarily believe that my life is one charted primarily in regret, but there is much in my life that I would do different given the chance. Life is short, and it’s getting shorter every day; throw my innate impatience into the mix, and it’s easy to see why I am tortured by every day that I don’t achieve something magnificent. Plenty of films (and an occasional great one) deal with the disappointment of old age and life poorly spent. But few films deal with the emptiness of that revelation in such stark and powerful terms as 2013’s The Great Beauty, the Best Foreign Language Academy Award winning film from Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino. A visual and emotional tour-de-force, The Great Beauty is a modern Italian masterpiece in the Fellini vein.
After three years of running this blog, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about great Italian cinema, it’s that narrative is secondary to “experience.” Emotions and the evocation of a specific state of mind or place is what defines much of the great Italian cinema. The Bicycle Thief is a transcendentally melancholic experience that evokes the crushing poverty of post-World War II Rome. Cinema Paradiso captures the wonder films can instill in us when we’re young as well as the beauty (and poverty) of Sicily. And no film has captured the mercurial charm of the creative process as well as Fellini’s 8 1/2. And, The Great Beauty is one of the great cinematic statements on regret and old-age packed with some of the most gorgeous cinematography this side of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a celebrated Italian journalist and novelist that has just celebrated his 65th birthday with a hedonistic extravaganza of Rome’s social elite that would rival any of Ancient Rome’s most debauched orgies. But despite his life of luxury and total ease, Jep is not a happy man. He wrote his first novel, an instant classic, when he was a young man and has written another book since. And his interviews may be among Italy’s most read and in its most respected magazines, but it also involves him interviewing “artists” who act simply involves stripping naked and running head-first into brick walls. After the woman who inspired his first novel dies, Jep suddenly realizes he hasn’t done anything meaningful with his life in thirty years, and that all of the people he associates himself with are as empty and shallow as he is.
What makes The Great Beauty different from other films that deal with an old man who gets old and realizes his life has raced him by is that there’s absolutely nothing feel-good or redemptive about this film. The Great Beauty is not a film about Jep’s attempts to regain control of his life. It’s about his slowly dawning realization that his life has become without meaning and that he doesn’t really have the energy to correct this course. The only person he finds in his life with any emotional honesty and sincerity is the 43 year old stripper daughter of a heroin-addicted old friend. And, Jep quickly discovers that he can’t find the redemption in Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) that he needs. The Great Beauty, like Synecdoche, New York, before it is a film that forces the viewer to confront his own mortality and that when we die, none of the things we’ve done will be there to comfort us. We will only have the things we haven’t done there to cause us pain.
Toni Servillo’s masterfully understated performance is the glue holding this whole film together. When The Great Beauty begins to meander (rarely to its detriment), Toni Servillo’s natural mercurial charm combined with his deep reservoir of melancholy makes him one of the most arresting screen figures of the 2010s. Jep is what would happen if La Dolce Vita‘s Marcello lived to be an old man and had even less to keep him happy. Servillo understands Jep so well that it doesn’t seem remotely incongruous for Jep to verbally lash a socialite at an otherwise friendly dinner party and to then suggest to that same woman later in the film that they should sleep together because it would give him something beautiful left to look forward to in life. Jep has an innate joie-de-vivre but if he stops moving for even a second, he realizes that these pleasures add up to nothing, and there is never a second in the film where Toni Servillo doesn’t remind us of this.
The Great Beauty deserved an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography, and the fact that it didn’t get one is a crime. It takes nearly twenty minutes before The Great Beauty begins to develop a plot (which is less of a linear narrative and more a series of thematically connected episodes), and it managed to hold my attention in a vise that entire time because The Great Beauty is stunning to look at. Luca Bigazzi’s camera becomes a testament to the eternal beauty of the city of Rome, and Cristiano Travaglioli’s frenetic editing captures the delirious disconnect these wealthy hedonists have from the real world. But, when the film calls for long takes and unbroken meditations on the action at hand, Bigazzi’s camera is there to soak it all in glorious detail and color. The Great Beauty is a must-see because of its cinematography alone.
The Great Beauty‘s complex understanding of the way that we deal with regret and the notion that there isn’t always a magic solution to live in the moment is going to be off-putting to viewers who require happy solutions and clear-payoffs (or, even, in The Great Beauty‘s case, a cohesive narrative). The film demands that the viewer consider that we’re slaves to our behavioral destinies and that, beyond that, the suffering required for great art may be more pain than the art itself is actually worth. Much like Happiness and Amour, The Great Beauty is a film hiding a cynical and painful world view beneath an inviting title. Although The Great Beauty didn’t leave me nearly as emotionally devastated as Amour, it continues the tradition of the Best Foreign Language Academy Award winners being much better than the American films that win the same title, and it is certainly worth the time of any one who loves powerful and ambitious foreign cinema.
Final Score: A