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November 14, 2013

Starz Denver Film Festival 2013 - The Great Beauty

la grande belleza poster.jpg

La Grande Bellezza
Paolo Sorrentino - 2013
Janus Films

I don't think The Great Beauty could have ever existed if Federico Fellini had not made La Dolce Vita. And I'm not alone in making that connection. The difference is that Paolo Sorrentino's is more of an elegy to the city. Instead of Anita Eckberg at her voluptuous peak drenching herself in a Roman fountain, we have a visibly older and heavier Serena Grandi popping out of a cake.

At the core of the action is Jep Gambardella, a writer in his sixties, who came to Rome forty years ago. With his first and only novel published to great acclaim, Jep is content to write short articles and be part of Rome's nightlife. His contemporaries are dying. From his balcony just across from the coliseum, Jep ponders whether to continue living in Rome.

Of course the partying is seductive. Everyone dances manically to Brazilian disco, interrupted by a strolling mariachi band. The camera glides over the scene. Much of the time, Sorrentino's camera seems restless, constantly in motion, exploring environments, possibly uncovering secrets. There were times that the energy of the nightclub scenes made me think that when the DVD is released, there should be an option to only have those scenes played, in the way that DVDs of Bollywood movies allow you to only see the musical numbers without having to deal with the sometimes ponderous exposition.

When Jep has philosophical discussions, which happens a few times, the film stops dead in its tracks. Sure, hypocrisy needs to be addressed, and it's sometimes comforting to know that life has some kind of greater meaning, but the best parts of The Great Beauty are when Sorrentino lets the images, and the often beautiful music, speak, or should I say sing, for itself. The soundtrack includes Arvo Part, John Tavener and Henryk Gorecki.

It's not surprising that Jep, who has lived the same way as he did as a celebrated young man, would have a brief affair with a woman, forty-two, who performs as a stripper. By denying that you are aging, you can deny that you are going to die.

Two moments one might think of as Felliniesque involve animals. Jep finds a giraffe standing near the coliseum. It turns out that a magician acquaintance will make the giraffe disappear. In a later scene, Jep finds a flock of ostriches on his balcony. A nun, obviously modeled after Mother Teresa, exhales, and the birds fly away. Rome at night seems like an alien, depopulated city, a place that only foreign tourists visit.

In spite of a terrific opening, and some wonderful moments, The Great Beauty goes on a bit too long. What Sorrentino may think he is trying to say about life, love and art is undermined when his characters spend time talking about such matters. For myself, this film doesn't work nearly as well as his previous This Must Be the Place, where Sean Penn's retired rock star seemingly goes in unexpected directions, as does the film, in a journey about self-discovery. While I am mixed in my feelings about some parts of The Great Beauty, there is one scene that is absolutely right. Jep remembers a time from his youth when he went swimming. We see the older Jep in the water, he submerges himself to avoid an oncoming motorboat. We see the younger Jep emerge from the water. Jep surveys the four young women lounging by the shore, settling on the one who would be the love of his life. Within those couple of minutes, Sorrentino reminds us of the time when it seemed like the most beautiful women to be seen in the movies all came from Italy.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 14, 2013 07:27 AM