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Seduced by The Great Beauty: A review of La Grande Bellezza

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The Great Beauty

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Could it be: A wake-up call from Italian director, Paolo Sorrentino, about the ultimate evils of Marxism and socialism? In Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza, posh parties for the idle elite and maudlin intelligentsia invite viewers to be part of the decadence and debauchery.

Imagine Hieronymus Bosch throwing an opulent fete above the Colosseum -- and you get an idea of what's in store in this sumptuous feast of a film. A throwback to the great Italian films of Fellini and De Sica, La Grande Bellezza is complete with Vatican satire, a toothless nun on her way to sainthood, and a Cardinal who's obsessed with culinary secrets. The Church looms throughout the tragicomedy, ineffectual, inescapable -- the mighty moral compass of the country that no longer looks to it for direction.

The film harkens the surrealistic themes of Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the lush images of Antonioni and Visconti. Climb aboard the crazy conga dance train to nowhere and relish in the tepid joys of mediocrity, if you can stand it. Repetitive rhythmic beats contrast against the ever fluid serpentine cinematography of Luca Bigazzi, which whips, winds, weaves and wiggles through palazzos, piazzas and parties. With the grotesqueries of aging elites cascading by, it's like being on a macabre fashion runway, with the kinetic recurrent throbbing Eurotrash soundtrack convincing you that being rich ain't all it's cracked up to be.

It's modern day Rome -- and the great leveling experiment has been attained. Everyone who's made it is aging and either angst-ridden or oblivious. Now what? The ambition-less writer and antihero of the story, Jep Gambardella, wonderfully portrayed by Toni Servillo, had one great, championed book of fiction in him. Now, as a legendary writer and self-professed king of the high life, Jep the journalist turns his mighty pen to write about who's hot and who's not for a dwarf-owned magazine publisher, who is one of the few people he can connect with on a subliminal level. Jep is on a odyssey, caught between silence and sentiment, emotion and fear.

Even the celebrated Cardinal cannot conjure up a message of hope for Jep, who's tried escaping into nostalgia whilst longing for meaning beyond the moment. This Italian orgy of nihilism introduces a rich ensemble of rogues, rascals and religious characters, as Jep journeys from one party to another, while reuniting with old acquaintances. He yearns for connections that have meaning, value, substance. He discovers life at a funeral, embraces passion with an old friend's aging stripper-daughter, but never quite finds the answer to his unexpressed question.

Beyond his lavish lifestyle, Jep discovers following his 65th birthday bash that beauty is not in the checkered past, nor the unknown future. It is also obviously not before him in the present moment, which is illusory and filled with the blah, blah, blah of banality. Some could read the story of Jep and declare that beauty is in the City of Rome itself -- but that's too obvious for a man like Jep, whose face expresses a range of emotional vicissitudes with twinkles of humor to keep himself float. Jep looks down upon the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship, a sinking metaphor of the once great vessel that was Italy -- a ship in stasis, like Italy, going nowhere, moored and bored out of its collective consciousness.

The city is not totally in ruins, though; it can still spin a spell over the uninitiated: When a Japanese tourist takes two sets of photos of the Roman cityscape, he dies from its stunning grandeur, a victim of a sensory-seducing overload. But Jep and his close friends have been prisoners of this melancholic megapolis for most of their lives. They are not easily enraptured tourists. Rome is their home. This is the Eternal City after it burns. There's no fiddling, only philandering. This is Rome smoldering in its own ashes of excess. Jep's dramatist friend eventually escapes the city that's been sacked by scandal and corruption in order to find meaning. So it is not the city that is the great beauty to Jep. His gradual renewal of himself comes in the guise of non-conventional beauties who adorn his seasoned life: the blue-haired dwarf editor, the toothless root-eating nun, and the enigmatic dumpy housekeeper.

Beauty, it turns out, is having ambition and drive: beauty is having purpose -- elements forgotten in modern, post-Berlusconi Italy, but evident in Jep's extraordinary women, the antithetical beauties who relish in simple wisdoms. Jep feels fervor once again when he realizes that his life can finally triumph as he relates the revelations of growing old and watching a population decay before his eyes from the weathering strains of unsustainable social justice, thanks to those progressive policies that were supposed to make the European Union great instead of being a mechanism for dismantling democracies. Jep erupts and puts all his cards on the table as he fillets a friend with an unrelenting sardonic rant of truth -- the scene is a priceless declaration that enough is enough, a precise moment that metaphorically addresses the plight of Italy and its people.

Once Jep is able to express emotion at the funeral for his friend's existentially suicidal son (who, like the inhabitants of Rome, is in denial), a classical motif is introduced into the soundtrack, lyricism winning out over vapid club mix Muzak heard throughout the film. The party music annoys and perturbs intentionally to underscore the abject pretentiousness of a high society that has sunk so low. Indeed, some of the best storytelling occurs when there is no dialogue and the visuals are wrapped in Arvo Pärt's haunting choral chants and gentle liturgical organ chords -- a musical statement that minimalism might be the answer to some of the core problems facing Jep, his friends -- and Rome itself.

Jep is renewed by having closed the chapter on his past while he floats forward, prone perhaps to delicately warn the heirs to the city that Rome is dying -- and that happiness and beauty are not injected from a Botox needle, but rather found in the soft face of a first but never forgotten love. Beauty comes in splashes from unusual people, but humanity overwhelms it all with its swelling tidal waves of wretched mediocrity. The great beauty is when the party is over and people can, without drugs or decadence, appreciate a society that is daring to step outside the coffin it built for itself. Beauty is in renewal, the push toward faith and freedom from idle worship. Great beauty is when there is no beginning, no end, no present -- only timeless love. If love brings meaning, then life is worth living.

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