Though he’s been buzzed about for a while, The Great Beauty is the first film from director Paolo Sorrentino that I’ve been able to see. That’s not an entirely embarrassing admission I suppose (while highly praised, Sorrentino hasn’t quite reached the lofty heights of true European giants like Michael Haneke, Pedro Almodóvar, and Béla Tarr) but it is a little odd. I first heard about Sorrentino when his 2008 film Il Divo was getting some positive buzz, but I was ultimately scared off of seeing it by reviews which suggested that it was borderline incomprehensible for anyone who wasn’t knowledgeable about Italian politics. I was also put off by some rather strange descriptions I’d heard of his 2011 English language film This Must Be the Place (which starred Sean Penn as a glam rock star seeking revenge against a Nazi war criminal). His latest film has all the trappings of a breakthrough that can’t be ignored: it got great acclaim at Cannes (even though it didn’t win any awards there), it’s been submitted as Italy’s entry in the Academy Awards, and most importantly it’s being released by the newly resurrected Janus films. In my book, that’s a must see.
The Great Beauty is a sort of 21st century answer to Federico Fellini’s 1960 classic La Dolce Vita (and if you haven’t already seen La Dolce Vita you can probably stop reading this now, The Great Beauty is probably not the movie for you). Rather than looking at a new generation of Italian socialites, this film sort of suggests that the ones from that movie never really grew up and are still behaving the same way. The film opens with a lavish party filled with loud music and exotic dancers. It’s the kind of thing you’d normally see at a hip nightclub except that half of the people dancing are geriatrics. The celebration is in fact a 65th birthday party for an author named Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a man who wrote one very highly regarded novella when he was young and rather than follow that up with another work he instead dedicated himself to the Roman nightlife. He’s still highly regarded amongst his high-society peers and carries himself like the Italian version of the guy from Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man Alive” commercials, but at the bottom of it all is a feeling of emptiness. The film begins with Gambardella in a sort of state of crisis as he wonders if he’s partied his life away and from there the film contemplates what it looks like to have a mid-life crisis when someone’s already been behaving like a 22 year old his entire adult life.
Like La Dolce Vita before it, this is a sort of picaresque journey through Italy’s high society in all its absurdity. Gambardella seems to go from decadent party to decadent party and meets all kinds of strange people, and this can be both exhilarating and exhausting in its own way. It’s the sort of life that one would imagine Bill Hader’s Stefon character from SNL living and you can understand why someone would maybe be sick of it after a while. Gambardella does question some of the pretentious nonsense he’s exposed to (two of the film’s best scenes show him rebuking a ridiculous performance artist and a smug dinner party guest respectively), but he also dutifully continues to attend these events and has strong opinions about the various rituals involved in, say, attending a funeral. The film’s narrative is extremely episodic and Gambardella’s arc is really subtle to the point where it can be almost entirely missed if you aren’t paying pretty close attention.
The Great Beauty is the kind of movie that seeks to be a sort of portrait of a city at a certain point in time, but it looks at that city through a very specific generation and socio-economic lens. It’s a very boomer-centric and upper class idea of what’s hip and happening. One wonders if Jep Gambardella even know how culturally irrelevant he is? Has he seen the clubs that aren’t filled with old geezers? Has Sorrentino? The film does seem to know that there’s something a little bit off about someone this old dancing along to house music, but it never quite plays the image for comedy. I guess it just strikes me a little odd that, rather than creating a La Dolce Vita about a new generation of Italians, Sorrentino has instead opted to keep on following the baby-boomers (or whatever that generation is called in Italy) to the bitter end.
This has been a tough movie for me to really get handle on. Part of me thinks there’s something about it I’m not getting and another part of me thinks there’s nothing to “get” and that I’m just overthinking things. I went in expecting this to be a movie about the emptiness of being a socialite, that it’s a life that ultimately leaves you with no true legacy because once everyone who once knew you is dead you’re left without much for anyone to remember you by. I guess that message is in there, but Sorrentino sure takes a roundabout way of getting to that. In the meantime we get a whole lot of vividly captured visuals and some amusing anecdotes about the Italian upper-crust. These elements are sort of entertaining in and of themselves, but only to a certain point, and by the time an old mother Theresa figure shows up about two hours into the film I was beginning to grow a little tired of the whole thing. If I sound a little frustrated and disappointed by the movie, I am, but only when looking at the film by the standards of Euro art films. There probably is more to think about and enjoy here than there is in most films and it is a movie I would recommend, at least to the right kind of people. That said, if you’re really that interested in seeing a movie about rich Romans you’re probably better served simply re-watching the film I’ve mentioned over and over again in comparison to this one (La Dolce Vita), because this certainly isn’t going to be unseating that movie anytime soon.
*** out of Four