‘The Great Beauty’ opens at the Music Box Theater on Friday, January 3rd.
Paolo Sorrentino is a superb filmmaker; his ongoing partnerships with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (since 2004), and the wonderful Italian actor Toni Servillo, have produced a pretty interesting variety of films. From his debut film, One Man Up (2001) to 2008’s Il Divo to 2010’s This Must Be The Place (his English-language debut with Sean Penn and Frances McDormand), Sorrentino’s films are ripe with tangential detail, both narratively and visually, and those details have a way of forming into a foundation underneath the surface of the story being told and the settings those stories occur in. There’s rarely an uninformative or unmotivated shot, rarely an uninteresting character or unimportant event, and the films seem exactly as long as they need to be. Which is why, for all of its formal beauty, its complex but efficient narrative structure, and some wonderful acting from its principals, I was deeply disappointed in The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) (Italy, 2013).
The Great Beauty chronicles the present-day adventures of Jep Gambardella (Servillo, marvelous here), a practicing journalist and long-ago fiction writer who is turning 65. He’s an effortlessly amiable and stylish bon vivant, and we meet him at a raucous society party that’s being thrown for the occasion. The party is, cinematically, superbly choreographed, giving us a cross-section of the Roman high-life circa 2013 and introducing a number of the people who are important in his life. At the crack of dawn, walking through the side streets of Rome (with ordinary citizens walking their dogs, flocks of birds cavorting through the sky, ancient monuments looming around him, and laughing schoolgirls peering through the gates of a convent), Gambardella returns home to his lush apartment (with its gigantic balcony overlooking the Colosseum), chats up his housekeeper and cook, and goes to bed. The following days involve interviews, parties, dinners, parties, news of the death of dear friends, parties, museum visits, parties, funerals, parties… but Jep realizes that the wine, women and song are no longer a buffer between himself and his own impending mortality. One of the deaths he’s informed of is the passing of Elisa, who may very well have been the love of his life, even though they hadn't seen each other for over thirty years. He is loyal to old friends, even when they have profoundly hurtful disagreements, but amenable to making new ones; after being introduced to the daughter, Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli, who we’ll discuss later), of one of his more shadowy acquaintances, Egidio (Massimo De Francovich), he begins an uncharacteristically platonic friendship with her. But, even with her tagging along here and there, the Gambardella personal tour of old friends, familiar places and sociable cynicism continues unabated.
Anyone making films in Italy creates them between the long shadows of Rossellini, Visconti, Fellini, and Antonioni, and Sorrentino here takes his shot at the Fellini side of things. The character of Gambardella has been compared by many others to Marcello Mastroianni’s Marcello Rubini in La Dolce Vita, another practical journalist surveying both the absurdity and beauty of life in Rome (and western civilization). But the big thing missing here is Fellini’s generosity – Marcello was always of Rome, moving effortlessly between people of all classes, all stations, all occupations, all temperaments. Gambardella’s nostalgia comes with pretty heavy doses of regret for how many things he’s taken for granted, but his nostalgia is a luxury he can afford; the world we’re presented with as his is exclusively populated with well-off publishers, national-treasure poets, opportunistic art collectors, bored housewives of rich husbands, tenured professors and a cast of hundreds who obviously don’t have jobs to go to the next day. Marcello’s problems reflected The World, or at least The World as seen from Rome. But Gambardella’s problems are rich-people’s-problems, white people’s problems, and the view from Jep’s privileged perch gets inescapably monotonous as the film progresses. Along with the intermittent appearances of mortality reminders (...OK, we get it...), Sorrentino threads his film with a lot of other arcs and motifs; Flaubert writing a book “about nothing,” the ubiquity of Catholicism, the slow but sure disintegration of relationships and marriages, and a few metaphorical references to magic. But by the time Sister Maria (Giusi Merli) shows up (an elderly Mother Teresa figure seemingly destined for sainthood), Sorrentino has boxed himself in so indulgently, yet so superficially, that he doesn't know whether to make her an instructive Luis Buñuel-ian parody of earnestness, or another jaundiced example of the gullibility of the average Italian, or a genuinely profound figure of simplicity and grace. Gambardella arrives at an epiphany about what “the great beauty” actually represents, but it’s interesting that the other most interesting character in the film has simply vanished from Gambardella's life, and Sorrentino’s script. (There’s a quick line, almost thrown away, that reveals the fate of this other character, but I only picked it up on the second viewing, and it just became one more thing that infuriated me about the film.)
Sorrentino’s a pro, and he will make other wonderful films down the line, I have no doubt. There are individual performances here that are impressive: Toni Servillo is among the world's best actors, Galatea Ranzi does a lot with a little as Jep’s old friend Stefania, and Sabrina Ferilli is quite wonderful as Ramona. (Ferilli is the politically active daughter of the former Speaker of Italy’s Communist Party, an accomplished actress, the advertising face of De Cecco pasta, a famously devout fan of Rome's AS Roma soccer team, and one of the most beloved celebrities in Italy.) And Luca Bigazzi's camerawork is seamlessly beautiful. But despite the artistry on display here, The Great Beauty isn’t just an excusable near-miss; it’s an extraordinarily condescending film masquerading as a stylishly nostalgic examination of Mamma Roma and The Big Questions. People like Jep Gambardella don’t have problems; people like Jep Gambardella are the problem.