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:
February 11th, 2014 at 2:36 pm
Great review. While I did give The Great Beauty * * * out of * * * * stars, I nevertheless felt that it was far from being a masterpiece (let alone a great film). You are also right that each year one single foreign film gets a lot of acclaim and the viewer will mistakenly feel cultured by that film alone. This is cheating. The viewer has to explore all of foreign cinema to truly feel cultured. This will not work with one film alone. The Great Beauty does feel more like an homage to classic Italian cinema and less like something truly original. If The Great Beauty did not resemble homage than maybe the comparisons between itself and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (* * * 1/2 out of * * * *) would have some merit. As you implied, Carax may be nostalgic for the past in interviews, but his love of the medium easily disguises that notion. Compared to the work of legendary Italian artists like Fellini and Antonioni, Paolo Sorrentino’s film leaves a lot to be desired. I will say that it is highly enjoyable as an homage and as you implied Toni Servillo’s performance as Jep has a charisma worthy of Ben Gazzara and Jean-Paul Belmondo whenever they played those type of roles. I have not seen Marco Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty, but it sounds interesting. Does he do for Italian cinema what Manoel de Oliveira does for Portuguese cinema. In other words, on paper his work to some may sound drab, but on screen they are anything but. I mean this as a compliment:)
February 11th, 2014 at 2:43 pm
Correction: Compared to the works of legendary Italian artists like Antonioni, Fellini and Rossellini, Paolo Sorrentino’s film leaves a lot to be desired.
February 12th, 2014 at 12:01 am
Thanks for the response, John. Rossellini, Antonioni and Fellini (in that order) are my three favorite Italian filmmakers and so, yes, I think it’s ludicrous to even think about putting Sorrentino in that category.
No, I wouldn’t compare Bellocchio to Oliveira. I can see why you would think that based on what I wrote about Dormant Beauty but Bellocchio has always been quite a ferocious and controversial filmmaker. He’s just not cynical and hip like Oliveira. You should definitely check out Fists in the Pocket, his 1965 masterpiece, if you haven’t yet seen it.
February 13th, 2014 at 8:10 pm
Great article. I’m relieved to hear someone of the same opinion. I feel like I was missing out on what others are already declaring a modern day masterpiece. Especially since “The Great Beauty” feels so void of meaning when compared to the movies it alludes to. Those classic Italian films are still exhilarating to watch because of their deep insight and innovativeness. They really had something to say! This felt more like a reduction of those movies – as well as Italian history – by making a dull attempt at correlating them with modern Italian culture. The thing is, it had good intentions and a wonderful storyline to follow but it took the lazy way out. It’s just so “artsy” that it’s hard to call its bluff.
February 14th, 2014 at 8:46 am
I’m amazed by all of the positive reviews it’s been getting (by critics and people I know). On the other hand, since posting my review I’ve heard from a lot of people like you grateful to know that they’re not alone in their dislike of it.