This Roman joyride is gorgeous but incomprehensible

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


The Great Beauty
April 17-20, RPL Film Theatre
3 out of 5

Chosen Best Foreign Language film at the latest Academy Awards, the Italian dramedy The Great Beauty is beautiful and maddening in equal measure. For a movie with zero CGI or special effects the framing and colour palette are sublime. Every scene is so elaborate, the outcome cannot be but inspired by Federico Fellini’s oeuvre. That filmmaker’s trademark blend of extravagance and earthiness has been adopted by Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo) and brought into modern times to startling effect.

Then there is the plot, a haphazard journey through Rome’s artistic bourgeoisie that makes it difficult to stay just for the pretty pictures. At the center of The Great Beauty is Jep (Toni Servillo, Gomorrah), whose outlandish birthday bash brings the best, brightest and most decadent out of hiding. Once, Jep’s name was spoken with reverence in literary circles. Now, the author is happy with living off his past glories while crafting half-assed pieces for a newspaper.

Much to his surprise, Jep discovers he is not done trying. His long dormant ambition is awakened by a series of encounters with the people who attended the party (a former love rival, an intellectually savvy stripper, friends defeated by life). Their personal tragedies illuminate the emptiness of his life.

More interesting than the characters is Sorrentino’s depiction of Rome. In his eyes, the Eternal City is actually a trap. The surrounding wonders and a life of exquisite debauchery can be too much of a temptation for the artistically minded. The portrait of the art crowd is pretty damning: idle most of the time, and whenever they finally try their hand at something, the outcome is devoid of meaning. They live life as if it were performance art.

Because the vignettes are barely connected, it’s hard to see the dramatic progression that leads to Jep’s epiphany. Kudos to Servillo, who manages to create a cohesive character on shaky ground.

In The Great Beauty the camera is always moving, without ever betraying the composition of the scene, much like Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel) if he were obscenely rich and bored. The striking visuals are accompanied by high-brow composers AND Italian pop, a perfect combination of gaudiness and sophistication, much like in 8 ½ (the film’s obvious referent).

One fantastic sequence features Jep and barely alive “living saint” (a riff on Mother Theresa of Calcutta). The scene is so insolent yet funny and touching, it encapsulates the movie in a nutshell.

The Great Beauty demands effort but at times it’s very fulfilling. You might want to give this beauty a chance.