January 28, 2014

Oscar nom finds love and loss in Fellini’s eternal city

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), which was recently short-listed for the 2014 Oscars in the category of best foreign language film, is a cinematographically beautiful and thematically deep movie. The story is set in Rome, and this is key, for the city itself plays an equally important role as the characters.

The Great Beauty begins with a stunning moving shot of the city. The shot starts at the Roma O Morte monument and moves on to several other recognizable locations. This visually-stunning first scene is accompanied by the sound of a female choir singing “I Lie,” composed by David Lang. Besides the obviously striking visuals, the film has a very memorable soundtrack, which combines classical, contemporary classical, alternative, and modern dance music. These different musical choices help to illustrate the natural beauty of Rome and how it is juxtaposed with the apparent hollowness of its citizens.

The film centers around the life of Jep Gambardella, who is played by Toni Servillo, a favorite actor of Sorrentino’s. Gambardella is a prominent Roman journalist who is first introduced to the audience in the middle of his debauched 65th birthday celebration. Surrounded by the heavily drinking, actively dancing, and quite promiscuous Roman elite, Jep considers himself king of the high life at the beginning of the movie. However, this self-perception is soon disrupted by the arrival of the husband of a former lover. The husband tells Gambardella of the lover’s death, but more importantly that, having read his deceased wife’s diary, he found out that she regarded Gambardella as the love of her life.

From this moment on Gambardella’s view of his life changes, as he realizes that he lost something as beautiful as the love of his former lover. This revelation dramatically alters his opinion of his previously very satisfying Roman-elite lifestyle. In an attempt to find real beauty once more, Gambardella goes on a journey through his own city: rediscovering the Roman nightlife and eventually going out with a middle-aged stripper, attending a 12-year-old “action artists” show, visiting a Botox clinic whose clients include frequent plastic-surgery patients and nuns, observing an illusionist who makes a giraffe disappear, and finally, hosting a dinner party for a Holy Mother personage who is visiting Rome.

A film lover will find a lot of parallels between The Great Beauty and Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita, the first striking similarity being the fact that the main characters of both films are journalists, and the more important similarity being a corresponding perception of the Roman elite’s morally empty lives. Sorrentino admits to making the movie as a sort of ode to Fellini. The fact that it is being so well received is one of the greatest accolades an Italian (or any) film director can desire.

Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty is playing at Music Box Theatre.