Rome, it seems, can exist only one way: as a myth. It is timeless not because of its age and history but because it lives beyond us. It is content to entertain any of our pedestrian projections, nostalgic desires or ancient appreciations. Yet, it never feels compelled to comfort us with easy understanding. The city has mastered a balletic balance in chaotic dichotomy, where ruin and exultation beg for seduction.
Rome’s greatest seducer of all time may be cinema. This ancient city seems designed exclusively for life on the big screen. In the ‘60s Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita, 8 ½) revolutionized Italian cinema by blending fantasy and highly stylized imagery with sharp, observant tales of modern life.
Director Paolo Sorrentino (The Consequences of Love, Il Divo) proudly invokes and simultaneously reinvigorates Fellini’s style in his Oscar-winning film, The Great Beauty (2013).
In Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is the epitome of charm and sophistication. He is both a permanent fixture and sardonic commentator of Rome’s literary and cultural elite. As a young man he met with success after writing his one and only novel, The Human Apparatus. He has spent the subsequent decades working as a journalist and enjoying all the indulgences Rome’s nightlife can provide.
The film begins with an incredible rooftop party in celebration of Jep’s 65th birthday. Everyone should see this film if for no other reason than the sublime joy of Toni Servillo’s entrance at this party. Servillo has a face that is neither classical nor modern, yet it’s utterly compelling. In the folds of his face he absorbs Rome in all its magnificent delight and compelling decay.
Soon after his birthday festivities, Jep learns about the death of an old girlfriend (quite possibly the only woman he ever loved). The news thrusts Jep into introspection and we follow him on a peripatetic tour that winds it way across Rome and down through specific moments in his past. Jep is an exquisite flâneur, and his strolls are an occasion not only for personal contemplation but an opportunity to encounter the strange, glorious and banal digressions of everyday life.
Plot is secondary to emotional and sensory experience in The Great Beauty. On the surface this movie is nothing more than one man’s recollections about his life, his loves and his city. Yet, The Great Beauty achieves something remarkable and is a thrilling reminder of what cinema can achieve through mere glimpses.
The Great Beautyis a magnificent, sensory-rich visual poem that pulsates with life. It does not want nor need to be a grand film with a sweeping narrative. As Jep says in one of his many monologues, “This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah… It’s all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise, silence and sentiment, emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty.”
Critics seem unable to comment on The Great Beauty without mentioning Fellini. There’s no question that Sorrentino draws heavily from Fellini’s oeuvre. However, Sorrentino is no copycat, and this film highlights his exquisite eye for architecture (much like the great Michelangelo Antonioni). You feel this film, move in and around such spaces. Sorrentino’s camera not only establishes place, but also opens up a living atmosphere where the audience can be a companion in Jep’s world.
The Great Beauty is as much an existential meditation as it is a wonder of visual storytelling. Many movies are advertised as an experience, which usually means nothing more than a visual and auditory bombardment designed for distraction and instant amnesia. Few films actually achieve a state of resonance through a purposeful evasion of understanding.
If you missed The Great Beauty during its limited North American theatrical run last year, you now have the chance to view it at home thanks to the Criterion Collection. The digital transfer of the film to DVD, is stellar and the images are as deep and luxuriant on the small screen as they were in cinemas.
All the usual Criterion Collection extras are here on this three-disc set, which include deleted scenes, interviews with the film’s director (Paolo Sorrentino), screenwriter (Umberto Contarello) and lead actor (Toni Servillo). The box set also includes a considered essay about the film by noted critic Phillip Lopate.
Over the last several years the Criterion Collection has significantly shortened its waiting period for certain films to qualify for its stamp of approval. Some will argue that this strategy has reduced the brand’s associated prestige. Yet, in the case of The Great Beauty the expedited decision is completely warranted. This is a film that instantly justifies its critical praise and backs up its titular claim of being great.