In Paolo Sorrentino’s lavishly received Italian crime potboiler Il Divo, the stage is set with a world building montage that places us in a blood-bathed Rome ruled by politically backed hit men, and finally settles in, dollies up, and asks it’s leading man, Toni Servillo giving his best dead-eyed Giulio Andreotti impression, to stare straight into the camera and speak directly on how others seem to perceive him. Bizarrely, The Great Beauty begins almost the exact same way, but this version of Rome is not one of physical violence and political intimidation, but one solely focused on aristocratic appearances and the reciprocation of surface relationships.
Servillo, this time living in the skin of a facetiously jaded, secretly sulking part-time journalist and eternal socialite named Jep Gambardella, is found standing in the midst of his own lavish 65th birthday party, once again staring into the camera, memories of what he wanted out of life as a young man pouring out in a gloating voiceover. Though Andreotti’s inner monologue eventually sounds like it could have leapt from Jep’s mind, this time Sorrentino uses familiar thematic assertions to dig into the big mysteries of life with the wild orchestration of Fellini in mind.
It’s no secret that The Great Beauty employs with the basic ideas that make up Fellini’s surreal classic La Dolce Vita – a once brilliant writer surfs high society until he realizes that he’s beginning to miss out on the emotional perks of a normal domestic lifestyle – but Sorrentino aims to salute rather than steal from the master. In Jep’s case, this period of party going and blue-blooded mingling has lasted over three decades and he’s only just beginning to see the folly of his ways. Having fallen comfortable seeing through the bullshit and still luxuriating in the company of celebrities (the perks of befriending princesses and politicians are just too good to pass on), Jep has long been bored with his work, but he’s finally starting to feel the void left wide from lack of a family to call his own. It’s a problem, and it’s only getting worse as the party continues and the one person he believes to have ever loved passes on. Middle-aged strippers and one-night-stands can no longer hold back the flood of distraught emotions swirling around in his long-too-complacent head.
With the same audacious, overly busy style Sorrentino‘s become known for, the director maneuvers Jep‘s social life with deft, if zany, precision. Like the culture he portrays, there is distinct artifice in his creation, an ever present feeling of unreality that both calls back to Fellini, with lengthy focus on the spectacle of performance (the opening party sequence and a much later scene featuring a disappearing giraffe come to mind), and shares traits with Wes Anderson in a densely layered sense of emotion that lurks below the obviously directed facade of filmmaking (a scene in which Jep volunteers to be a pallbearer for a friend’s funeral being a key example). Behind the razzle-dazzle there is almost always a myriad of ideas at work, pulling at Jep’s ever contorting psyche. Sometimes, too many. At a bloated 142 minutes, the film’s religiously heavy-handed final chapter feels almost completely unnecessary and a bit tonally awkward. While the film is continuously cheeky in it’s characterizations, a recipe obsessed cardinal and an ancient, root-munching, stair-crawling holy mother push the boundaries of believability, even within Sorrentino‘s already improbable world.
Despite its perpetual over-the-topness, The Great Beauty manages to cultivate a rich bed of emotion from what at first appears to be an apathetic glaze of glitz and glam. We can add this to a thematic pile of last year’s films that could include Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring and even The Canyons, but instead of merely grazing the shiny surface as Korine, Coppolla and Schrader have prior, Sorrentino really seems interested in the emotional consequences of leading a life stuffed with cash and endless contacts rather than raw, supportive, heartwarming love. The film doesn’t lack anything but a competent editor, so dive in headlong and revel in the excessive. Not everyone gets to live like Jep Gambardella.
Another in Criterion’s new, thick digipack dual format releases, this loud and flashy film gets a fittingly gorgeous A/V transfer. Luca Bigazzi’s ever moving cinematography looks absolutely stunning within. The shiny and colorful glitz of the Roman party scene is a visual delight, fine detail coming through in everything from Jep’s crisp grey hair to the stone sculptures in the galleries he visits. Nothing short of wow can be said of the DTS-HD master 5.1 track that shows incredible range in just the first few moments of the film. Moving from lush choral arrangements to booming bass dance trance in just the first two scenes, the audio track has incredible power and clarity that benefits from you pumping up the volume a notch higher than you’d generally set it. Though the package is delightful, the supplements are surprisingly light in comparison to the bawdy length of the film itself.
Conversation Between Sorrentino and Italian Cultural Critic Antonio Monda
Casual and familiar, these to get on like old chums, remembering their experiences at the first Tribeca Film Fest and dissecting the characterizations within his latest film and speaking about La dolce vita‘s looming influence. 37 min
Interview with Actor Toni Servillo
Toni lovingly describes Jep as a big lazy cat, generally squandering his talents to vanity, but able to call upon his abilities with precision and speed at any moment. Among other elegantly phrased interpretations of his work with Sorrentino, this is primo. Servillo proves to be a wonderful interview. 12 min
Interview with Screenwriter Umberto Contarello
Umberto tells us how he met Paolo, their collaborative writing process, how The Great Beauty sparked as a film about Paolo’s cumulative experiences after moving to Rome, and the amalgamation of people who make up Jep’s writing personality. 12 min
Separated in two, we see Jep visit an aging film director as well as a montage set to salsa-y dance music of other scenes cut from the film. Considering the film was at one point over 3 hours long, this is a somewhat disappointingly paltry inclusion. 5 min
Invoking both the vain vulgarity the film revels in and the melancholia which lines it, this is a bold and brilliant trailer for a film deserving of such a description. 2 min
Set alongside a lovely set of stills from the film, an elegant essay by critic Phillip Lopate picks apart and showers praise upon Paolo’s film. It also sports a set of notes on the film’s transfer.
Wildly flamboyant, endlessly vacuous and startlingly moving throughout the course of its almost two and a half hours, The Great Beauty is a cinematic marvel that playfully asks what we find truly joyous in life and questions their validity with a sardonic over exuberance. Is it drunken conga lines? The grind of sweat and skin? Dabbling in the arts? Or finding love? None of these seems to keep ol’ Jep happy, but he keeps on, indulging his worst impulses, lazily searching for the Great Beauty. No one would blame you if you’d like to join him on occasion.