The Great Beauty
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, March 2014
It’s not often I feel the need to apologise before I’ve even given a review. But my response to the now Oscar-winning The Great Beauty deserves acknowledgement of the fact that lovers of the director’s previous work will doubtless love this too and it has been topping critics’ polls worldwide. However, I am deeply ambivalent about the film so cannot join the game of accolade-hurling without feeling discomforted.
Here’s the thing: Paolo Sorrentino is to many a master of contemporary Italian cinema. Even with a smidgeon of knowledge of the likes of Fellini, one can see why – Sorrentino’s gestures are grand, his aesthetic is flawless, and he’ll tackle the hard stuff: the subject matter that leaves the audience shifting awkwardly while relishing the cacophony of sound and picture he so expertly puts together.
All this is indisputable in his aptly (and not ironically) titled latest – his talent, his elan, it bursts from the screen from the opening moments on. A standout motif is the use of exquisite vocal music as background for the quieter moments of perfectly-photographed reflection – perhaps reason alone to sit through the rest of the film. But rather like the circus of appalling programmes one sees on Italian television, the film’s overall beauty, as great as it is, is neither subtle nor new nor clever. And so it left me feeling just a bit icky and annoyed.
Jep Gambardella is the epitome of Roman high society and the self-proscribed party king. With an apartment overlooking the Colosseum, his influence extends to midnight private tours of the city’s (and the world’s) precious artworks. The harem of women Jep has known is so vast he has to ask one if they ever slept together. On turning 65, he starts to question his life’s fulfilment, taking the viewer on a tour of his own reminiscences and the darker aspects of contemporary hedonistic living.
As Jep, Toni Servillo (Sorrentino’s leading man in 2004’s equally disquieting The Consequences of Love) owns the story and the screen, though his nuanced facial expressions are at times so unreadable it allows (demands?) that we project our own responses into the situation. Perhaps it is for this reason the story merely feels distasteful and unenlightening, since we know already that extravagance and debauchery is not the route to eternal happiness. (One need not have seen The Wolf of Wall Street to appreciate this point, but if you have then this film may seem to be hammering home the obvious.) When Jep explains and then acts out the disingenuity of funeral attendees, it is suitably galling to watch but also hardly revelatory.
With the camera constantly up in the face of ecstatic party-goers or caressing the nakedness of beautiful women, the moral of the story is laid on thicker than the make-up on the litany of grotesque characters who line up for cosmetic surgery. Religion is “outed” for its ludicrous reliance on cliche; the privileged are shown to be vapid and self-obsessed. But if you know all this already and are happy to be inveigled by the lusciousness of the whole experience, you may not mind.