Sunday, March 9, 2014

Review: The Great Beauty

Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, the city of yearning.

                                         - Giotto Di Dondone (1266 - 1337)

Rates:  *  *  *  *  1/2

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has reached a milestone; he's just turned 65. To celebrate he throws a lavish, rooftop party, an act very much in keeping with his character. Jep is garrulous, verbose, a bon vivant and something of a scoundrel, the sort of character that defies simple adjectives. 

He's also a Roman, in that he has lived most of his life in the eternal city and has been shaped, and even defined, by it. Rome is depicted here as a city rich in culture; of food, language, art, conversation and history, all things close to Jep's guarded heart. 

Arriving in Rome in his early twenties, Jep quickly established himself as an author, publishing a classic work of melancholy romantic fiction. And then, just as quickly, abandoned serious literature live it up, making good money through journalism but devoting most of his energy to carousing. As he puts it, 'I didn't just want to live the high life, I wanted to be the king of the high life.'

A post he attained early and maintained, through four decades.

Now, with the end much closer than the beginning, Jep takes stock. While still drinking, dancing, talking, arguing and loving his way through an endless series of short days and long nights, he also finds moments to ponder the meaning of it all. Away from the crowds and the bustle, he walks along the Rhone, goes to art galleries, seeks out old friends, thinks about things long forgotten.

Jep is a restless man, easily distracted, contrary and contentious. And this episodic film is designed to reflect his character.

It's no surprise to learn that Jep never married and never seriously considered settling down. While this is presented initially as a lifestyle choice, it is subsequently revealed as also a bare necessity; he is a difficult person to be close to, and occasionally turns on even members of his closest circle with brute savagery.

But he can also be warm and generous, evidenced by the gentle relationship he strikes up with a middle aged stripper. And the romantic streak alluded to in his long ago first novel still surfaces, particularly when he reflects on the girl, now deceased, who inspired him to write it. These feelings, it seems, were subsumed, but never entirely repressed.

Ultimately though, Jep seems most at home with his own company; wandering the streets, absorbing the wonders that life has to offer. And these are many and varied. While the film has an almost elegiac tone at times, it also delivers marvels; a giraffe standing in an abandoned piazza, a flock of storks on a balcony at dawn, a famous art gallery explored by candlelight.

Jep ends his odyssey thinking about death, knowing his own isn't much further away. He reflects via voice over, 'This is how it always ends, with death. But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah...' It's a cryptic ending, to a film wide open to interpretation; is he saying that as his life was full, his death becomes insignificant? Or just the opposite, that the commotion of his life really just disguised the emptiness that he now has to face. 

One of the pleasures of this brilliant film will be puzzling over questions like these, for some years to come.

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino scored two years ago with This Must Be the Place, a quirky road movie featuring Sean Penn as reclusive musician known only as Cheyenne. And there are a number of associations between this earlier film and The Great Beauty; both are composed of a series of vignettes, instead of a conventional plot, and both centre on characters conducting a review of their lives.

Both Cheyenne and Jep are seekers; the former for his estranged father who he hasn't seen for many years, the latter for a connection of any sort that cuts through his cynicism and stirs his emotions. But while the characters share similarities, Sorrentino has also diverged and matured in his approach, now offering a film that is deeply linked to some of the great works of Italian cinema. There is much here that is indebted to Fellini and Minnelli, among many other masters.

There is also humour, amidst the reflections and pathos, some of it surprisingly broad. Sorrentino takes particular aim at the contemporary art world, where Jep works as a critic, and depicts the film's artists as a pack of shallow, pretentious charlatans, more concerned with maintaining their image than producing anything enduring. And there are also pointed potshots at organised religion, gender politics and Gen Y. While most of this is funny, some is just plain silly, or simply over-exaggerated, and so provides some of the film's few week spots.

Mostly though, this is an intoxicating, enchanting mix. A film that switches emotional modes rapidly and then nails them, one after the other. The funny parts are (mostly) funny, the thought provoking elements make you think, the silent stretches of contemplation are simply stunning.

Tying the disparate elements together is Servillo, a veteran actor who has always worked at home. His performance here is charismatic, charming, abrasive and always surprising. You keep waiting, expectantly, to see what the actor and the film throw up for you next, and you are rarely disappointed. There is so much going on here on different levels that it's really quite difficult to describe in a few paragraphs.

So we'll abandon that project right now, and end by saying that this is a film that is for anyone who has ever been interested in anything, who has ever loved, and who has ever had doubts. Which is a clumsy way of saying it has a universal message. Very highly recommended.

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