La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013)

A film has to be very sure of itself to carry off such a long running time. Having now seen it, I’m unclear exactly how it managed it — the narrative is discursive, flitting about fairly freely — but it has, becoming in the process a rather heady and passionate film about Rome and its social whirl. Now I’m at home, sipping on some red wine because it feels like the Roman thing to do, wishing I was a smoker like the film’s protagonist, and wondering how much an apartment overlooking the Colosseum costs.

For yes, the world the film inhabits is of the very upper echelon of Roman society. Played by Toni Servillo, Jep is a jaded columnist for an upper-middle-class paper who has one early novella under his belt but has since lost focus on this kind of writing in favour of embracing the social scene and all of its parties — many of which take place at his spectacular pad. He has just turned 65 and, amongst all the socialising and partying and fun, he occasionally turns his mind to his past and his future. His best friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) wants to leave Rome after 40 years, his relationships such as with ageing stripper Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) are fleeting, and the appeal of interviewing artists is waning as he considers picking up the pen and becoming one himself again. And yet over the film’s great length Jep’s nostalgia and self-doubt never really becomes much more than a passing thought — the film’s focus is far more on the rush of images and sensations than on sententious moralising.

There’s a strong affection for the hedonism of its characters. The aged figures may seem ridiculous partying with younger people and taking drugs, but they aren’t judged for it excessively. The film’s sharpest satire is reserved for the artistic world, as we encounter various ridiculous endeavours in different media over the course of the film — most notably and hilariously a naked performance art piece, but also, amongst others, a child prodigy painter forced much against her will by her parents to create live art in front of party guests, and the earnestly pretentious play that Jep’s friend Romano finally gets to stage. But if there’s a fundamental emptiness to the characters and the lifestyle that this satire suggests, the film also seems to want to replace it at length with meaning. An aged nun visits near the end, called by everyone “the Saint”, and though barely able to move or speak, imparts the force of simple spirituality to the usually wry and quipping Jep.

The success of the film is largely down to its unforced style, and the roaming, untethered camera of Luca Bigazzi, so adept at finding beautiful compositions (though Jep’s sartorial elegance, Rome’s ancient architecture, and the luxurious settings hardly hurt). An initial few shock cuts (cannon fire, screams) turn out to be false prophets, as the film settles down — though not to a conventional narrative, for the flow of images and events is as constant as it is largely unmotivated by plot. This is the Rome of Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, but it’s a Rome that the director and cast seem to love and have great fondness for. It may move in strange directions, with little flashes of surrealism, but it’s always captivatingly presented. Calling it Fellini-esque (as many critics have) almost seems reductive, but then I’ve never had a great tolerance for the carnivalesque excesses of late-period Fellini. This is generous filmmaking, and frequently rather gorgeous too.

The Great Beauty film posterCREDITS
Director Paolo Sorrentino; Writers Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello; Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi; Starring Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli; Length 142 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Sunday 22 September 2013.


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