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.

Copie conforme (Certified Copy, 2010)

There’s a playful quality to all of Abbas Kiarostami’s films, but playful in the formal sense — of an artist grappling with and pushing at the boundaries of narrative, of how things are represented on screen and how those images are interpreted by the viewer. These are philosophical concerns, ontological questions about the nature of reality, which I cannot pretend to be an expert in. And if the idea of a philosophical cinema seems a little dry, well there are times in Copie conforme when it does seem that way, although I wouldn’t want to suggest this characterises Kiarostami’s filmmaking as a whole. I liked his most recent film Like Someone in Love, and his Iranian features are wonderful. However with this, his first non-Iranian feature film — it’s set in Italy and is in English, French and Italian — I find my attention wandering.

The structure of the film remains interesting. It follows James, an author played by opera singer William Shimell, who meets an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) while promoting his book in Italy. She drives him out to a pretty spot in the countryside while they chat. When they stop for a coffee, the lady serving them mistakes them for a married couple, which they play along with for a bit, but after leaving, the line between play and reality becomes blurred. Given that James’s book is entitled Certified Copy and it’s about the idea that the copy of a work of art can be just as valuable if not more so than the original, so the play between reality and fiction in their personal lives becomes a focus for the film. In fact, hints of this married status permeate the film from the outset — some of the ways that James acts around Binoche’s character (who is unnamed) suggest a deeper connection, and yet at the start they clearly do not know one another: he signs her book before going up to speak while she and her son take their seats in the audience.

This set-up is intriguing, but it makes the actors’ lives difficult, and I’m not convinced they really overcome this need to try to play multiple different characters at the same time. The more into the husband character that James gets, the more aggressively domineering, patronising and snippy he gets, though at times earlier on he shows hints of this rudeness, while Binoche must flit almost schizophrenically between coquettish and angry, and all shades of emotion in between. By the end, it can be a little tiring to follow their trajectory. That said, I think Shimell (as the untrained actor) and Binoche do a fine job with what they have to work with.

There are plenty of antecedents for this kind of film, and having recently re-watched (and reviewed) Richard Linklater‘s trilogy of Before films, those are the ones I have most in mind, especially given the match of French leading lady with an Anglophone counterpart, not to mention similarities in certain aspects of their characters. Things get a lot darker for the couple here, making Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy, 1954) another point of comparison. There’s plenty too in the dialogue between characters that feels recognisable, but it’s oddly stilted. However, there is a nice stretch late in the film where James slips into French almost imperceptibly, implying once more that he’s become a different character.

It wouldn’t really be fair to linger on the comparisons with other films though, for Kiarostami is his own filmmaker and imbues proceedings with a strong authorial presence. Many of his favourite themes and motifs are familiar, and the film looks beautiful thanks to the collaboration with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. It’s just that as another experiment in narrative form, it feels a little arid. I may well feel differently about this film in a number of years; perhaps you will find me revisiting it with warmth. For now, I recommend it only advisedly.

Certified Copy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi; Starring Juliette Binoche, William Shimell; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 9 July 2013.