The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)

Toni Servillo looks suave and debonair even when taking a break.

Toni Servillo looks suave and debonair even when taking a break.

(2013) Dramedy (Janus) Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Franco Graziosi, Giorgio Pasotti, Massimo Popolizio, Sonia Gessner, Anna Della Rosa, Luca Marinelli, Serena Grandi, Ivan Franek, Vernon Dobtcheff, Dario Cantarelli, Luciano Virgilio, Aldo Ralli, Giusi Merli, Giovanna Vignola, Anita Kravos, Roberto Herlitzka, Isabella Ferrari. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

There are those who remember the films of the great Italian director Federico Fellini with great fondness. Others look back at his films with annoyance. Fellini wasn’t one to inspire insipid emotions; you either loved his work or you couldn’t stand it. There was no middle ground with him. There hasn’t been a filmmaker like him since and although there have been a few films that could be classified as Fellini-esque, there were none that anyone could really say “this could have been made by Fellini” of. Until now.

Like the film considered to be Fellini’s masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, this film is set in the upper class of Roman society, the wealthy who go to parties that border on the surreal. Middle aged men dance with younger women. Older women dance with younger men. In Rome, the Eternal City, the one thing that isn’t eternal is youth. Those who are losing it hold onto it with their fingernails.

Jep Gambardella (Servillo) is celebrating his 65th birthday and has become aware that his time ahead is growing much less than his time behind. At 26, he had written a novel, The Human Apparatus that established his reputation – but hadn’t written a novel since. He contented himself by being the King of the Roman High Life – the man whose appearance at a party would instantly make it a success. He supports himself by interviewing artistic sorts for his editor, a kindly and wise little person with blue hair. Jep is beginning to suspect he’s wasted his life and determines to stop doing things he doesn’t want to do.

He gets involved in a relationship with an aging stripper named Ramona (Ferilli) that to his surprise is more friendship than sexual – he has over the years had plenty of sexual adventures, including one with the melancholy Orietta (Ferrari). Much of this self-reflection is brought on by the revelation that a former lover has passed away. She’d left him unexpectedly and without explanation some 40 years earlier and married another man. After her death, her husband had found her diary and discovered to his shock that it was Jep who was the love of her life and that she considered him, the man she spent her entire life with, a pleasant companion.

That’s really all there is to plot. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I went into this movie expecting to hate it. I’d heard from friends and colleagues that the movie was at best a disappointment and at worst a pretentious mess. In fact, Da Queen did indeed wind up really loathing the movie but that wasn’t the experience that I had. Watching the movie, I was well aware of its faults – the movie is shamelessly pretentious in the sort of way that almost defiantly invites criticism. It is also way too long and the coda not worth the wait.

Still, I found the movie mesmerizing. In many ways, it’s a love letter to Rome itself – full of beauty that is unsurprising but with little hidden gems that only give access to those in the know. Sure the people depicted here are shallow with the delusion of being intellectual. Most of Jep’s circle is passing middle age into old age and they are going there kicking and screaming. They have all lived lives of hedonistic emptiness, going from party to gallery opening to art exhibition to dinner with little else in mind but to see and be seen.

The movie hits you with unexpected insights which caught me by surprise, much of which has to do with understanding how Romans view themselves and their place in the world. There is a world-weary melancholy to the movie which comes from being the heirs to an ancient empire that once stretched across the world but has changed and become secondary to superpowers like America and China. Jep’s self-awareness is critical to understanding the film; he is fully cognizant that he has lived an empty life and continues to live it. He knows that he has spent much of his time observing life rather than taking part in it. He has become insular, a man whose life revolves around the next party and whose reputation as a bon vivant is everything.

Near the end of the movie we are introduced to Santa (Merli), a 104-year-old nun who is while technically not a saint, referred to as such. She appears almost mummified, her jaw open wide in an expression you might find on the entombed but she has a gentle soul. In one of the movies best moments, a flock of migrating flamingos makes a stop on Jep’s portico following a dinner party he has thrown in her honor. Santa whispers with an expression of rapt joy that she knows the Christian names of each one of the birds. Then she blows a little puff of air and off fly the flamingos. Rome is ever a Catholic environment.

This is a movie of contradictions. Crazy pretentious but unexpectedly insightful. Beautifully photographed but with an eye to the ugliness of human nature. Artful yet crass. Serious yet with an absurd sense of humor. Spiritual but also hedonistic. Yes, I will admit that this is a movie that requires a good deal of effort to love. This isn’t a movie to be taken lightly nor is it as frivolous as it appears to be on the surface. It demands to be taken on its own terms and either you will or you won’t – that’s entirely up to you. If you do, however, you may well be rewarded with a glimpse inside the Roman soul that is rarely revealed to outsiders. In that sense, this is a masterpiece and there are those who agree plainly – it did beat out the incredible Danish movie The Hunt for the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the recent Academy Awards  Do I think it is a better movie than The Hunt? No, I can’t say that it is in all honesty but it is certainly a very, very good movie if you are willing to allow it to be.

REASONS TO GO: Moments of insight and thoughtfulness that sneak up on you. Gorgeous images and cinematography. If you love Fellini, this is for you.

REASONS TO STAY: Unabashedly pretentious. Far too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is graphic nudity and a good deal of sexuality and sensuality. There’s also some drug content and a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The performance artist in the film Talia Concept’s head-butting spectacle is a nod to real world performance artist Marina Abramovic.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Dolce Vita

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Our Film Library begins!

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