THE GREAT BEAUTY (La Grande Bellezza). Starring: Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli, and Carlo Verdone. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Rated Ma15+. Restricted, (Strong nudity). 142 min.
Winner of the Best Foreign Movie for 2014 in the Golden Globe Awards, and nominated for an Oscar in that same category, this film tells the story of an Italian socialite, who decides to take stock of his life. And it does that by revealing the complexity and beauty of Rome.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a journalist and writer, who, 40 years earlier, wrote a book by the title of "The Human Apparatus" which made him the toast of Rome. There are those who hated the book, and those who loved it. But whatever the reaction, he acquired fame by writing it. It was his one and only novel, however. Since writing it, he has engaged vigorously and decadently in pursuing a pleasure-seeking, indulgent life style. He writes social columns for an editor, and has a cutting wit which he uses to make friends and enemies in Rome. He has become a fixture in Roman high society, because he is the "king" of it, and he has the power to make or break those who wish to party in it.
Shortly after turning 65 years of age, he hears that the woman he first loved has died. Affected by the realisation of both age and lost love, he decides to look for more meaning in life. The beneficiary of his search is Rome, which the Director of the film, Paolo Sorrentino, presents to us by illustrating the city's paradoxes. In his search, Jep forms an attachment to a Roman stripper, Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), who is intrigued by who Jep knows, and the influence he obviously yields.
The film becomes a glowing tribute to Rome which is captured in something of the style of Federico Fellini who featured Rome in his classic, film, "La Dolce Vita" (1960), and it shows similarity with the techniques used by Terence Matick in movies like his award-winning "Tree of Life" (2011). This film ranges through the streets, alleys, rooms, and waterways of Rome from one arresting image to another. The array of images is spectacular, and surreal images of the city are often accompanied by reflective and philosophical musings by Jep, his failed-poet friend, Romano (Carlo Verdone), and others. Jep deeply loved his first love, who has only ever loved him, and he desperately wants access to her diary that was destroyed by her husband after her funeral. Ironically, his search for beauty and meaning seems impossible without it. But the film's title, "The Great Beauty", is clearly reserved for Rome.
The film's imagery gives a seductive flavour to the movie which is reinforced by an excellent devotional soundtrack. The film explores death, religion, spirituality, art, life and love, and touches upon other weighty issues such as the permanency of Italian life and politics. But it also explores the superficiality and lack of substance of the life of those who believe that Rome is a city that allows them to experience its pleasures indulgently. The imagery, which includes gyrating dancers, a vanishing giraffe and an editor who describes herself as the "Queen of Misfits", makes for a dazzling film that is visually very creative.
This is a film, though, where style can overshadow substance. The beauty of Rome is subordinated pretentiously at times to the mediocrity of the high-society players, who party in it, and one is never sure of the telling point that the absurdist images are supposed to make. Often the point is clear, as when a self-absorbed cardinal, who is an expert on food recipes, ignores Jep's query about how to find spirituality, and at other times it is not. But even when the message is not clear, the imagery frequently has a power of its own, as when Sister Maria, the 104-year old wizened nun, who has devoted her life to the poor and maybe is not all that she seems, crawls agonisingly up the stairs to something beyond.
In this movie, the beauty of Rome goes hand in hand with wilful decadence and a lot of nudity is used to display it. Wild parties are described as best, "because they go nowhere", and what "one wants really in life" loses out to the distractions of "the whirlpool of the high life", which Jep is not willing to relinquish.
This film will not be to everyone's liking. In the spirit of "La Dolce Vita", it exposes the meaning of life rather less than it offers enticement for Rome's assumed pleasures. Unquestionably, the movie is an art-house film, but the richness and creative flow of its imagery make it a very interesting film to see.
Peter W Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for film and Broadcasting.
Released 23rd. January, 2014