The Great Beauty
dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2013, Italy
Now playing at The Music Box Theatre in Chicago (and the newly refurbished Wilmette Theatre in Wilmette) is Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, an Italian art film that has generated a good deal of critical acclaim since it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May. It won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film last month and is considered by many to be the front runner in the same category at the Oscars next month. It seems that, more than ever before, critical opinion in America now coalesces around a single “foreign film” each year (e.g., A Separation in 2011, Amour in 2012), conveniently allowing a single “foreign director” to be feted in Hollywood for several months on end during “awards season.” This presumably also allows the American public the chance to feel cultured without having to expend too much effort — i.e., by seeing only a single non-American movie each year. (Hey, who has the time to keep tabs on what these foreign filmmakers are doing when you can just let Sony Pictures Classics be your gatekeeper and narrow down the choices for you?) But even a couple of my cinephile friends have jumped on the Great Beautiful bandwagon and urged me to see the latest from Sorrentino, a director with whom I was previously unfamiliar. I am sorry to say I now have little desire to fill in on this filmmaker’s prior work, as talented of a visual stylist as he may be; I was intensely disappointed by The Great Beauty, a movie that tries to capture the zeitgeist but is so tired, stale and reactionary that it gives the impression it could have been made 50 years ago with only minimal changes to the dialogue (e.g., removing its fleeting derogatory references to Facebook and reality T.V.).
One friend recently described The Great Beauty to me as “an Italian Holy Motors,” presumably because, like Leos Carax’s masterpiece, it is amazingly photographed, vaguely flirts with surrealism (both a dwarf and a giraffe appear) and functions as a series of extended set pieces revolving around the same character rather than following a more traditional linear plot. I was therefore crushed to find myself coming to the conclusion that Sorrentino’s film is, on a deeper level, the polar opposite of Carax’s. Holy Motors is a movie that shows, with a great deal of cinematic sophistication, how notions of identity have become increasingly fragmented in the internet/video game age. It is also a film that, perhaps even in spite of Carax’s’s intentions, connected with young people: when I took a college class on a field trip to see what I perceived to be a somewhat “difficult movie,” I was absolutely astonished to find that literally all of the students enjoyed it, immediately identifying with its multiple-avatars-as-protagonist premise. (While Carax may act like a curmudgeonly luddite in interviews, as a filmmaker he still regards the medium with a childlike wonder that comes across as infectious to viewers.) The Great Beauty, by contrast, attempts to deal with what its creator sees as a crisis in contemporary Italian culture: the difficulty of creating meaningful art in a shallow and decadent age. Unfortunately, Sorrentino frames this already cynical dilemma in the most retrograde terms imaginable — as a Fellini-esque fantasia centered on a creatively blocked artist — and winds up not only venerating the past but clinging desperately to the past as an artist himself, the only aesthetic solution he can find for his perceived cultural malaise.
The protagonist of The Great Beauty, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), is a writer in his mid-60s who authored an acclaimed novel, The Human Apparatus, decades ago but never followed it up and has since devolved into working as a tabloid journalist. Jep is a socialite who attends swinging parties and interviews celebrities, and has thus become a fixture of the gossip columns as much as the subjects of his articles. He dreams of writing a new novel but, surrounded by people he considers “animals,” can’t muster up the enthusiasm to write about “nothing.” If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because the film is pretty much an exact mash-up of La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, Federico Fellini’s masterpieces from 1960 and 1963, respectively. Jep, Sorrentino’s hip alter-ego, is a cultured man who appreciates the exalted history of Italian art but also finds the sheer weight of it stifling — it’s the source of his creative paralysis. Sorrentino indulges his own love of Italian art history (music, painting and sculpture) on his soundtrack and through his images, which he pointedly contrasts with a modern Italian culture he despairingly identifies only with “fashion and pizza.” The only contemporary artists we see are frauds: a performance artist (female, beautiful and nude, of course) who idiotically runs headfirst into a giant stone column, and a little girl who randomly splashes buckets of paint onto a massive canvas that we are told will sell for “millions.” Sorrentino reveals his hand by juxtaposing this cartoonish latter scene with a solemn one in which Jep makes a visit to an art museum in the middle of the night. There, the director’s low-angle camera circles around an ancient statue, a tracking shot that itself is a visual quote from Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954); even Sorrentino’s conception of cinematic beauty can’t escape the burden of his country’s glorious past.
If there is a saving grace to The Great Beauty, it is Toni Servillo’s performance as Jep. The twinkle-eyed Servillo has a rakish charm reminiscent of Ben Gazzara and Jean-Paul Belmondo whenever they played aging-Duan Juan types, and his shark-grinned visage remains compulsively watchable even as the film surrounding him sinks into tedium. Unfortunately, this terrific actor deserves something more dignified than his character’s climactic encounter with a 103-year-old nun, a Mother Teresa lookalike meant to symbolize “tired religion” with mind-numbing literalness. (At the end of the film, Sorrentino actually cuts from this decrepit woman crawling up a flight of stairs to a flashback of the night young Jep lost his virginity, a juxtaposition of sex and religion that would have made even Fellini’s eyes roll.) I did see a great new Italian movie with “Beauty” in the title last year, one that more thoughtfully examines the role of Catholicism in contemporary Italian society: Marco Bellocchio’s euthanasia-themed Dormant Beauty. Even though many people, including me, consider Bellocchio to be Italy’s best living filmmaker, and even though that film features the great Isabelle Huppert in a strong supporting turn as a nun, it only screened once in Chicago — at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s invaluable European Union Film Festival — before disappearing for good. But, then again, the tone of Bellocchio’s movie is sincere instead of ironic and lacks The Great Beauty‘s flashy cinematography (not to mention copious party scenes and tits), and I suppose that’s just not the kind of thing that’s ever going to be up for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
You can view the trailer for The Great Beauty on YouTube below: