The films of Paolo Sorrentino see him balancing tones and genres of all kinds and often to remarkable effect. The Consequences of Love broke heats and accelerated pulses, whilst Il Divo cast the ins and outs of Italian politics as a genuine thriller with style to spare. After his wobbly Stateside sojourn This Must Be The Place (a better film than you remember, despite its insistent peculiarities), Sorrentino returns to Italia for his greatest balancing act yet; The Great Beautyis a classy commentary on Italy 2013, as the country staggers through a monied-yet-misguided post-Berlusconi haze. Luhrmann’s not-so Great Gatsby should take notes.”
The greatest of beauties can be heartbreaking. The Great Beautysets out its stall in its opening, as a Japanese tourist succumbs to a heart attack whilst taking holiday snaps of Rome’s fountains and ruins. From sudden death, we cut to life in the fast lane as classy revellers get down at a rooftop party. It’s not just any party; it’s the 65th birthday party of well-to-do man about town Jep Gambardella (Sorrentino’s muse, Toni Servillo). The music is blaring; the backdrop is a giant neon Martini sign; the entertainment is glass rooms with burlesque dancers flaunting their masked wares. From Fellini to Pasolini and now to Sorrentino, no-one does elite extravagance onscreen like the Italians. It’s positively intoxicating.
Jep is a chap to be celebrated, though he would not agree. A post as a reputable interviewer and journalist keeps Jep in the lifestyle he’s accustomed to, but he yearns for the successes of earlier years, in particular an acclaimed debut novel he’s never managed to match. Regret is written in the deep lines of Servillo’s face. Smiles and wry laughter continually give way to sighs and pregnant stares. He’s the wise man in a sea of bitchiness, self-sabotage and privilege. Playing host to frequent get-togethers populated by noteworthy writers and socialites, he drinks in the barbs and observations of the ivory tower populace. As he observes the to-ing and fro-ing, a hopelessness creeps into Servillo’s well-dressed frame. His soul is withered by these people. As flashbacks show, he had a youthful idealism once but, as a great man once wrote, too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.
Every frame drips elegance but despite the surface sheen, this is much more than rich folk having a crisis. The Great Beauty is about small people missing the big picture. In the eyes of Sorrentino and his skilled DP Luca Bigazzi, Jep is surrounded by the architectural and artistic magnificence of Rome, a beauty he continuously aspires to. Jep’s soul keeps him in touch with ‘la grande bellezza’, as seen in his burgeoning relationship with tart-with-a-heart Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) and his prospective interview with a nun (Giusi Merli) idolised as a ‘living saint’. The vices of the present and the icons of the past clash in The Great Beauty, but neither one overwhelms the other in Sorrentino’s balancing act. He’s also careful to take reference points from other films without over-exploiting them. Nods to Resnais and Reygadas can be spotted, and the spirit of La Dolce Vita looms large. Like Fellini, Sorrentino is interested more in registering a mood and time than a concrete plot, so some may see The Great Beauty as episodic. Yet with the over-awing sense of elegance and privilege set firmly in stone by Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello, the joins never show. Scenes jump between comic, tragic and tragi-comic, but when witnessed through Servillo’s angsty anchor, the jumps never jar. John Tavener and Europop can sit together at Sorrentino’s table.
The Great Beauty is beautiful, but is it great? The plight of the wealthy will always leave a sour taste in the mouths of some, and a 141-minute runtime might seem indulgent, especially for a film revolving around the weight of indulgence. However, only the most cold-hearted of folk would want to cut the fluid long takes of sun-kissed Roma. The Great Beauty is a reminder of the capacity for soulfulness, even in the city that could (barely) house the egos of Berlusconi and Ratzinger simultaneously. As Italy feels recession’s bite and Francis I extols social justice, Sorrentino shows us Rome here and now; bored with wealth, searching for soul and beautiful to the end.