La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)
Director Paolo Sorrentino Stars Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli Italy 2013 Language Italian (with English subtitles) 2hrs 22mins Colour
Felliniesque whirl round Rome’s intellectual ‘elite’
'Is that the one with the parties?' someone asked.
Yes, this is very much the one with the parties. Sprawling, wild, frantic rooftop affairs packed with people – many of whom are well into middle age – doing the conga and this year’s equivalent to La Macarena. It’s also – not at the parties – the one with the giraffe and the flamingos.
Director Paolo Sorrentino, having established a big reputation with films like The Consequences Of Love and Il Divo, seems to have decided that now is the time to take on the heavyweights of Italian cinema: Federico Fellini and, to a lesser extent, Michelangelo Antonioni. The characters, Roman setting and the maximalist style are all firmly in the Fellini world. Our guide to it is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, even more central to Sorrentino’s work than Marcello Mastroianni was to Fellini’s), self-proclaimed king of the high life, author of one novel many years back, high-profile interviewer and resident of a flat overlooking the Colosseum.
Jep’s had a good time, a lot of good times. He’s still partying hard but aware he’s getting old. People keep dying around him. Real friends, as opposed to people he has bitchy exchanges with in fashionable places, are short on the ground. Everyone nags him about the fact that he hasn’t written another novel, including a 104-year-old nun on her way to sainthood.
It’s cavalcade of big characters and strange moments: the cardinal who speaks nothing but cooking tips, the strip club owner who can’t bring himself to retire his forty-something daughter, the performance artist whose act climaxes with her smashing her head against a brick wall, the aforementioned giraffe and visiting flamingos, the Botox clinic conducted (reception, waiting room and surgery all in one) in a Roman palazzo. All this Jep observes, part amused, part wistful, part mournful. At one point he asks one of his long-time fellow partygoers if they’ve ever slept together. She replies they haven’t. ‘Good,’ he says, ‘At least we’ve got something to look forward to’.
It’s beautiful when it isn’t (deliberately) grotesque, brilliantly filmed, well-acted, the dialogue sharply written (even if you’re not an Italian speaker, keep your ears open, because no translation can match the sonic impact of words like ‘stronzo’ and ‘sciocchezza’). But it is long. Incredibly long. It runs two and a half hours and felt like more because although it is packed with interesting things, it has almost no narrative drive.
Still, it’s absolutely worth seeing, and a film that gets people talking – I had dinner with friends the other night and we kept coming back to it, enough one of the people there hadn’t seen the film*. We all agreed on the power of the image making, and about how it captured the overwhelming beauty of Rome, and that it was funny and fascinating, but couldn’t agree on whether it was sympathetic to the main character, and what, if anything, it was trying to say about the state of Italy at what is hopefully the end of the Berlusconi era (Silvio’s media empire is, somewhat inevitably, one of the entities behind the film). Unless maybe that all it needs to say is that everything that was wrong when Fellini made La Dolce Vita is still wrong now.
My review of Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo is here