Italy is so often associated with love, romance, beauty, and sophistication that those adjectives have become essential parts of the nation's identity abroad. Ask most Americans what they know about the country, and they'll likely mention pizza, the Mafia, Rome the city, Rome the empire, wine, and amore. What you likely wouldn't hear, of course, is Mussolini, political scandal, and bankruptcy, all things that are also, for better or worse, ingrained in Italy's identity. So when an Italian film by the name of La grande bellezza - The Great Beauty - comes around, having premiered at Cannes in 2013 and later winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the expectation is a lovingly shot portrait of a nation built on bohemian ideals of love and beauty.
That's exactly what The Great Beauty delivers, but not in the way you'd expect. The film centers on Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), an aging socialite who writes culture columns for a Roman newspaper. Jep is introduced at his 65th birthday party, as he celebrates the high life that he's always lived. This birthday, coupled with a few other events in his life, cause him to re-evaluate the lifestyle he sustains, the city he lives in, and the lack of fulfillment in his life.
More after the jump.
Directed and co-written (with Umberto Contarello) by Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty is essentially a loose hangout film, inviting the audience to just spend time with Jep as he works through his existential crisis. There isn't much to the plot, but that's hardly a problem when the film is as gorgeous as it is. Working with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, Sorrentino paints a genuinely breathtaking portrait of modern Rome, delivering stunning shot after stunning shot of the city where the ancient sits alongside the present. The film's title isn't lying: there is plenty of great beauty to be witnessed here, as Sorrentino takes a cue from legendary Italian auteur Federico Fellini and celebrates Rome as a place you can fall in love with.
The comparison to Fellini is crucial, because Sorrentino is both paying homage to him while creating an insightful work in the vein of Fellini's greatest films. As Jep strolls around the city, taking in the sights he's never really noticed despite spending his entire life here, Sorrentino's main theme becomes clear: Jep is a stand-in for bourgeois Italy. When Jep lounges about with his friends, the discussions usually center around intellectualism and artistry: the role of women in society, a new play, or what "Italy" means today. Jep has clearly participated in these conversations many times, but after his birthday, it begins to seem shallow and pretentious. He's no longer caught up in the distractions that prevent them from seeing the city - and country - for the beauty that it has to offer. There's a strong current of Romanticism coursing through each frame, as Sorrentino laments what the country has become and yearns for it to return to it's former glories.
Sorrentino makes great use of the film's editing to drive the point home as well. In the beginning of the film, the camera is in constant motion, zooming and whipping around the city and Jep's party positively vibrating with energy. But as the film continues, and Jep's perspective changes, the pacing slows: when the camera moves, it's with steady intention, or else it remains static. The film is literally slowing down and taking stock with Jep, moving at a more leisurely pace to allow the audience to contemplate with him. This is put to best use during the many party scenes: the action doesn't slow down, but the way it's presented does, with the camera no longer jumping from one face to the next but rather drifting idly through the crowd, searching for Jep. Each party becomes more of a chore for both Jep and the audience, letting the latter share in Jep's discomfort. It's a clever trick by Sorrentino, one that creeps up on the audience without ever drawing significant attention to itself.
For all of the film's luscious imagery and inventive framing, though, it's Servillo's performance that serves as the lynchpin for Sorrentino's ideas. Whether speaking with old friends or religious leaders, Servillo plays Jep as a man who's always amused by the thoughts and actions of others, taking a genuine interest in them and their ideas no matter how strange they seem to him. But Servillo presents that curiosity as a mask for Jep's deep sadness, and when he let's the latter peak through that armor it's a marvel to behold. Since Jep is the character the audience has to hang out with for nearly two-and-half-hours, Sorrentino needed an actor who could be charming and engaging while being contemplative and unfulfilled. Servillo delivers all of that and more in his terrific performance.
The Great Beauty is a stealthy sort of film. Not much actually happens over the course of its running time, but spending that time with Jep proves to be visually and intellectually rewarding. Sorrentino may yearn for the Italy of yesteryear, but The Great Beauty proves that there's still plenty to love about the modern day. A