The Great Beauty

January 25, 2014
Toni Servillo in 'The Great Beauty' 2013
Toni Servillo in 'The Great Beauty' 2013

From one wild party to another. The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) was the opening attraction of last year’s Italian Film Festival. This week it gets a theatrical release, having just been nominated for the Academy Award for the best Foreign Language Film. Whether it wins or not, director Paolo Sorrentino has made a movie that strives for greatness, and to my mind, succeeds.

The simplest way of summing up this movie is that it is La Dolce Vita (1960) remade for the era of Berlusconi. Like Fellini before him, Sorrentino has produced an extraordinary love letter to Rome that reveals the city’s vices and virtues, its eternal truths and fast-moving fashions. Our tour guide is Jep Gambardella – a masterly performance by Tony Servillo – a 65-year-old writer who styles himself the king of Roman high society.

The story begins with a long sequence with everyone dancing to pulsating music on a rooftop, in celebration of Jep’s birthday. One thinks immediately of Berlusconi’s infamous “bunga bunga” parties, but Jep is no geriatric playboy. Although he dresses like a dandy and exerts a powerful charm on everyone, Jep is a cynic. Forty years ago he wrote a small novel called The Human Apparatus, that was hailed as a masterpiece. In the decades that followed he has written nothing but brilliant interviews and features.

To those who ask why he never attempted another novel, he replies that Rome was too distracting. As the story progresses, and cracks begin to appear in his armour, Jep changes his story. He was searching always for the Great Beauty but never knew where to find it.

That beauty is everywhere in this film. Rome with its elegant buildings, its atmosphere of great antiquity, is explored and unveiled in one sequence after another. Along with the city itself we savour the human landscape: the would-be writers and actors, a pretentious performance artist who runs headlong into a stone wall; the schizophrenic son of a grand dame, who takes the words of the great authors as gospel truth; a showman who makes giraffes disappear; a little girl who throws paint at a canvas in a frenzy; a high-ranking Cardinal who only wishes to discuss recipes.

Every scene has its cast of sad, poignant, grotesque and hypocritical personalities. Jep moves effortlessly between these different levels of society, even hosting a dinner party for a centenarian nun destined for sainthood. The soundtrack has been carefully selected to complement the many different moods of the film, from throbbing dance club rhythms to contemporary pieces by composers such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener and Henryk Gorecki. The most haunting tune is Vladimir Martynov’s The Beatitudes, played by the Kronos Quartet.

Having walked out on a wealthy admirer from Milan who loves to take photos of herself, Jep links up with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a melancholy 42-year-old stripper. In company with a friend who has the keys to the grandest buildings in Rome, they explore the secret treasures of the city after dark. It’s only an episode, in a film of episodes, but it will linger in the viewer’s mind, along with dozens of other carefully composed images.

As he begins to feel his age Jep’s sang-froid is upset by a series of deaths. He reflects deeply on the past and strives to reassess the world in which he lives. He sees the city’s beauty is an apparition that must not be confused, Keats-style, with truth. Apart from the 104-year-old saint, no-one in this busy hive is looking for those things that are essential and immortal. Jep’s friend, Romano (Carlo Verdone) says he is disappointed with Rome, but the city is not to blame for his lack of talent as a writer.

The problem does not lie with the city but with its inhabitants’ desire to project their own fleeting fears and ambitions onto its seductive spaces. The Great Beauty is a portrait of a shallow, decadent age, due to pass into history like the excesses of ancient Romans. What is truly beautiful in Italy will endure, untroubled by the pageant of the present.

The Great Beauty
Italy/France, rated MA 15+
142 mins
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino; screenplay by Paolo Sorrentino & Umberto Contarello; starring Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Serene Grandi, Carlo Bucirosso

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 25 January, 2014.