This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
Jep Gambardella is a lothario who has lived the high life in Rome for most of his sixty-five years thanks to the success of his one novel and his affluent social circle. After he finds out that his first love has died and that she had carried a torch for him throughout her life, Jep finds himself taking stock of a life lived in high society but one without much substance behind it.
What we thought
The Great Beauty won the best foreign language Oscar at last year's Academy Awards but, unlike some of the more approachable fare that has won that particular award over the years, it's a film that is clearly aimed at an arthouse crowd. Forget the fact that it's a subtitled Italian movie – because, seriously, is it really that hard to read subtitles? – it's a 122 minute film that takes its sweet time getting to any sort of point and is filled with a cast of fairly repugnant upper class toffs doing seemingly nothing but gossiping, partying and bitching about and to one another.
The first twenty-or-so minutes are particularly gruelling, as all the slowness and obnoxiousness of some parts of the rest of the film are magnified with a particularly chaotic shooting style that leaves you both irritated and utterly disorientated. It's a terrible (or at least terribly difficult) beginning that is bound to have huge swathes of its audience storming out in a huff – which is kind of a pity seeing how good the rest of it is.
All the usual signs of a good arthouse movie are there, in retrospect, right from the beginning but no matter how strong its performances, how assured its direction and how stunningly beautiful its cinematography, with characters this smackable it needed something else to pull it through. Fortunately, it has that something else and it has it in spades.
The Great Beauty is a film of great beauty, to be sure, both for its beautiful visions of the more affluent parts of Rome and for the beautiful women that Jep finds himself involved with, but it's most notably a film of even greater depth. Showing the vacuousness of highly successful but vapid socialites is hardly an original idea (The Great Gatsby, anyone?) but the way that writer/ director Paolo Sorrentino deals with it is certainly quite singular, not to mention effective.
By starting with these characters at their most obnoxiously opulent, Sorrentino effectively gives us a shorthand for the easy, high-flying lives these people enjoy, especially when contrasted with a nearby tourist who suddenly and unexpectedly drops dead. As it goes on though and we come to better understand our “hero” Jep (played brilliantly with much needed humanity by Toni Sevillo), Sorrentino peels back the layers to reveal, not so much a seedy underbelly, as much as regular human beings who have been blessed with a life of ease and privilege that are nonetheless absolutely hollow at the centre. It's illusion giving way to disillusionment and the film's slow pace allows this to unfold entirely organically and believably.
“Blessed”, incidentally, is exactly the word to be used here because the film is steeped in religious allegory and symbolism that becomes more and more explicit as it goes on. The film's surprising but perhaps inevitable climax features no less than an incredibly old (and quite scary) nun and the real possibility of miracles. It doesn't quite tip over into magical realism but fans of the works of writers like Louise De Bernieres and Gabriel Garcia Marquez should be right at home here. Either way, as the existential collides with the spiritual, which in turn collides with the romantic, we start to understand just why exactly Jep was never able to write that second novel.
It may not always be the easiest journey to reach that point but at least The Great Beauty has a point – a point that is actually specifically achieved through the more difficult aspects of the film, as well as its obvious technical brilliance. It's not for anyone looking for light entertainment and, frankly, I would still recommend the woefully under-looked Calvary over it if you're in the mood for existential dramas currently on circuit, but The Great Beauty is well worth seeking out as a challenging but unquestionably powerful piece of cinema.