(Mild yet unspecific spoilers lurk within.)
Surely you aren't tired of this by now: more than a year after it first premiered at Cannes to shrugs from my corner of the world, reached the eyes of several of my Georgetown friends who were quick to point out that I was missing out on something great, and won an Oscar, plus a trip to the city in question and back, at long last...THE GREAT BEAUTY!
Even by my standards, the newly-minted Best Foreign Language Film winner is an unusual movie. Director Paolo Sorrentino, largely unknown to Americans before this, has made his magnum opus and pulled out all the stops. The Great Beauty is a jocular, gorgeous, all-encompassing mess. Contrary to how that sounds, that doesn't mean it's a bad movie—just be forewarned that this is a long and exhausting ride with more than a few bumps along the way. In trying to portray the malaise and inertia of the retired upper class of Rome, Sorrentino has cast as wide a net as possible. There's commentary on art, religion, politics, generational divides, intellectualism, you name it! No topic goes untouched, for better or for worse. Rome is, after all, a city with a long and complex history with an identity to match; to make a cinematic statement on the city without considering its facets in full would be to do it a disservice.
The obvious comparison that every film critic from here to Hong Kong has made is with Fellini's La Dolce Vita, though as chance would have it...I haven't seen it yet. Sorrentino's take on the emptiness plaguing certain denizens of Rome today certainly owes something to Fellini—I've seen 8 1/2 at least and can tell you that the two directors share a love of good music, exuberant styling, and flesh-baring women of all shapes and sizes—but The Great Beauty is more than merely homage or update. Indeed, Sorrentino makes it clear fairly early on that his project is in part a literary one with a voice distinct from Fellini's. Much to my surprise (and probably only mine—this movie had so much hype around it going in that I was bound to have my expectations upended in some way or other), the film is more than just a collection of abstract and picturesque vignettes; these moments are there, most of them tinged with Sorrentino's odd sense of humor (in one party scene, the camera pans over to the stage at one point to show the techno-scat-singning chanteuse writhing around on a couch...because here leg is broken and there's literally no other way she could comfortably be singing right now), but they're strung together with a rather dialogue-heavy storyline that impossibly manages to be both a broad epic and a personal meditation. How Sorrentino achieves that balance without the whole thing falling to shambles is remarkable.
Toni Servillo, the actor playing protagonist/narrator/forlorn writer Jep Gambardella, is perhaps the key to making everything work. Even when the film stretches itself a bit too thin, (the commentary on religion—while neither mean-spirited nor totally unnecessary—that comes to dominate the final stretch of the movie just adds to the exhaustion) or too far (a dwarf is one of the main characters, so by the law of ironic juxtaposition you have to toss a giraffe somewhere in there too, right?), Jep's insightful and incisive commentary on his world holds the film's discrete parts together. With an unforgettable face malleable enough to show mischief and sorrow within seconds of each other, Servillo keeps the viewer (or at least this viewer) glued to a story that might otherwise be difficult for most of us to buy in to. Believe it or not, the one aspect of Rome I never got to experience was the nightlife of the rich and famous; after seeing this movie, I'm rather glad I missed out.
Jep came to Rome from Naples in his twenties and after publishing one wildly successful book was catapulted right to the top of the city's intellectual elite. Now turning 65, Jep reminisces on his past and sharpens his tongue against the people he spends all his time with: a boxtoxed-up, burnt out subset of the population who spend their days doing nothing and going nowhere. All the while, Jep never fails to turn down a good party or a pretty woman, even though the seams of the hedonistic ways of his glory days are showing. The story takes some strange turns—there's a suicide, a stripper with a heart of gold, a cardinal who's more gastronomically than theologically inclined, a flock of flamingos—but with Jep as our guide we're willing to stick with it to see where we end up. Despite the film's pervasive wistfulness, the ending is ultimately a hopeful one. Better yet, it feels earned, rather than tacked on to make the audience feel good about themselves before leaving the theater (or closing their browser window, but let's be real here, this is a movie that deserves the best viewing experience possible...for the reasons below).
Besides its lead actor, the film's two other greatest assets are its soundtrack, an eclectic mix juxtaposing niche classical pieces with high-octane European dance music and the occasional acoustic ballad (in English?!), and its cinematography. Director of photography Luca Bigazzi, who has worked with Sorrentino previously and most recently captured Tuscany in vivid detail for Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, shows us Rome in new and surprising lights. Much of the film is shot at night—presumably in the 2–3am hour, when the crowds of tourists are all happily dozing in their hotel beds—and nocturnal scenes spill over into dawn, producing some of the movie's most dazzling imagery. Bigazzi is clearly of one mind with Sorrentino, whose playful edge is matched with his cinematographer's technical skill in some of the film's more inventive shots, such as the slo-mo push in on Jep's face in the middle of the opening party's big dance line; or the series of flashbacks to Jep's first love, lit intermittently and uncannily by lighthouse. Anyone can take pictures of Rome that will wow their friends and family back home, but to capture the city so that it sings takes a talent on an entirely different level.
To see the city of Rome in the 21st century through the eyes of an artist who has lived in the city as a native and not as a tourist: for me, that was the greatest beauty the film had to offer. Even for as much time (and memory card space) as I spent documenting my surroundings for the four months I lived in Rome, my pictures still strike me primarily as those of a tourist, not of a part-time inhabitant, when I review them now. Nor did they immediately evoke any strong pangs of nostalgia for the city as I flipped through them: by the time my last week in Rome rolled around, the physical and academic intensity of the Centro had left me ready to go home; "It's been real, Rome," was the nonchalant farewell I bid the city as my departure flight took off.
Exhilarating and exhausting as it is, watching Sorrentino's film was in a way like living through four months in Rome a second time, but now with eyes and ears more attuned to all the goings-on of the city and to the beauties big and small therein. The closing credits roll over a languorous shot of the Tiber, recorded from a boat's point of view and accompanied by a string quartet's rendition of Vladimir Martynov's bittersweet The Beatitudes. As the camera pans tranquilly upstream, I could feel swelling up within me the nostalgia that had been missing before. Rome announces its beauty to you from every corner, somewhat preposterously numbing your senses—after a while, nothing is beautiful anymore because there's just so much of the stuff. It was only when I watched as Sorrentino quietly unfurl the city's beauty in his film's final moments that I felt as though I were saying my proper farewell, that my soul finally and truly rang with the wistful recognition of Rome as not just a great beauty, but an extraordinary one.