La Grande Bellezza
After a diversion into the English market with This Must Be the Place, Paolo Sorrentino returns to his interrogation of Italian — and particularly Roman — life and culture with La grande bellezza, subtitled in English as The Great Beauty. And while Il Divo hangs on awareness of the real life of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, La grabde bellezza finds its subject in a topic that extends far beyond the decay of Berlusconi-era Rome.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) came to Rome forty years ago, writing his one novel, L’apparato umano — The Human Apparatus — and then never following it up. He instead became the self-described “king” of the city’s bourgeois would-be intellectuals, supporting himself by writing for a cultural magazine. The scene he surveys consists of drug-addled, new-age, superficially-socialist performance artists and little girls throwing paint-splattered temper tantrums at their stage parents who hawk the results for millions, but that’s all incidental. The scene is really about well-off, beautiful people drinking and dancing until dawn while congratulating each other on how enlightened and urbane they all are. And as Jep turns 65, he begins to realize — or to remember — how empty and onanistic it all is.
Sorrentino employs his characteristically gorgeous camera-work to great effect in capturing it all: the frenetic, fantastic high life; the queasy, dissatisfied hangovers as reality seeps back in; and the great beauty that we can only see when we look outside ourselves. He relies this time more on long, slow, gliding motions that are irreducibly cinematic. This breaks from his habit of staging motion within meticulously-framed static dioramas but adds a mesmerizing fluidity to the images.
The turning point of the film is a nighttime escape from the crowd, abetted by an acquaintance who holds the keys to all the most beautiful places in Rome. We linger on great works of sculpture and painting by classical masters; their art still has power today because it is rooted in something outside itself, and roots are important. And how is it that this man has been entrusted with these keys? Because he is a trustworthy man.
All the Romes of the world may be fallen cities, but it is not the cities themselves that are fallen, but rather the many rootless people who float through them, focused entirely inwards rather than out towards the cities they float through, and the great beauty that surrounds them.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.