The Great Beauty a Masterpiece

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Medussa Films, Not Rated, 142 mins. (In Italian with subtitles)
* * * * *

Winner of the 2013 Oscar and the Golden Globe Awards as Best Foreign Film, The Great Beauty isn’t just a great film–it’s a masterpiece. Paolo Sorrentino films the city of Rome as a garden of sybaritic delights with such lurid tones and decadence that his style has been compared to Baz Luhrman and Pedro Almodávar. A much better comparison would be to Italy’s great auteur Federico Fellini–think a pastiche of La Dolce Vita and Roma, with a bit of Dante’s Inferno tossed in.

The Great Beauty is a slow film that demands perseverance. Its lush exteriors are equal parts alluring and boring, which is really the point of the film. We experience Rome from the perspective of its main character, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). It opens on the grounds of a posh home where assorted friends, hangers on, and social climbers have gathered to celebrate Jep’s 65th birthday. They’re happier about the occasion than Jep, upon whose face is etched the horrifying reality of his own mortality and the ennui from having spent decades of his life enduring hedonistic evenings of booze, drugs, loud music, contrived merriment, and casual sex exactly like this one. Jep is a successful journalist, critic, bon vivant, and socialite who has hobnobbed with so many self-styled beautiful people that no party is complete without him. He has it all–wealth, reputation, connections, power–but what does it all mean? He’s feeling contemplative, but also sad, tired, and creatively spent. (Jep also authored a seminal novel, but never found inspiration to write a second one.) Where is the great beauty that animates the living and makes sense of life? The more the music pounds and the dance lights swirl, the more Jep longs for the simple and quiet. 

We follow Jep from party to party, event to event, and gallery to gallery, but he is happiest when his melancholia is undercut by those even more world weary than he–Jep’s no-nonsense maid; his acerbic editor, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), a dwarf whose lives and dishes out disappointment; Romano (Carlo Verone), a failed script writer and the closest thing Jep has to a real friend; and Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the don’t-give-a-damn stripper daughter of an acquaintance.  It’s tempting to see Romano and Ramona as Jep’s animus/anima archetypes, with Romano a projection of his aged sense of incompleteness, and Ramona the remembrance of newness and realness. Jeb befriends Ramona, not because he desires her body, but because she is an authentic presence amidst a whirl of phonies. In a nod to Dante, he becomes her Virgil, guiding her through Rome’s rings of violence, heresy (embodied by a materialistic cardinal), wrath, greed, gluttony, and lust, but also through Inferno’s upper level: limbo. There are gorgeous shots of Jep escorting Ramona through the Vatican Museum by candlelight, sharing poems and meals with her, strolling through crypts, dining with an ancient Mother Theresa-like nun, and other such moments in which the Great Beauty can be glimpsed, if only for a moment. We hope that, somehow, Ramona can transform herself into Beatrice and lead Jeb to Paradiso, but that’s probably not in the cards.
Servillo and Ferilli are magnificent in The Great Beauty, often communicating with one another in silences deeper than words. Servillo wears a Mona Lisa smile throughout the film. Is he melancholic? Wistful? Amused? Sardonic? Sad? Does he really long for quiet, or just need recovery time between bouts of hedonism? Does he even have the capacity to change?

Not since Fellini has Rome looked so exciting or so horrifying. I get the Luhrman analogies whenever excess is on screen–especially the saturated colors, the stark contrasts, and the no-holds-barred vices, but Luhrman uses surrealism as a prelude to hijinks, whilst Sorrentino uses it more reflectively and (ultimately) reflexively. Luhrman is all about the surfaces, whereas Sorrentino probes carefully guarded interiors at their most vulnerable points of entry. The Great Beauty a complex film that can’t be gobbled like popcorn; it must be savored slowly like a rare wine. It will try your patience, but by the time it's finished you, like Jep, may wonder why you were in such a hurry to rush off to what Phil Ochs called the next thrill parade.

Rob Weir


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