So far, anyone and everyone who has reviewed this The Great Beauty, or La Grande Bellezza in its native Italian tongue, has one descriptive in common - and that descriptive is highlighted by everyone's favourite F-word. And by everyone's favourite F-word, I of course mean Felliniesque. From the first deliciously giddy moments to the grand morality tale finale, Paolo Sorrentino's latest film is possibly more akin to a Fellini film than any film since Fellini himself was making movies. Hell, this film is so Felliniesque, it may be even more like a Fellini film than many of Fellini's own films. Okay, perhaps that is just hyperbole, but seriously, this film is quite the spectacle to behold, and the blatant influence of Sorrentino's late great countryman, has to be the major reason why. But none of this obvious influence, or over-use of that aforementioned F-word, should take away from the post-modern sensibilities and stunning film work brought forth by this post-realist, post-Fellini auteur.
Tackling many of the same concerns that Fellini (there he is again) played with in his masterful La Dolce Vita, Sorrentino takes a look at Jep Gambardella, an aging writer, and popular partier-cum-Roman pseudo-celebrity, upon his 65th birthday, as he tries to figure out what has happened to, and what will now happen to his life. The juicy, contemplative role of Jep, Sorrentino's modern channeling of Marcello Mastroianni's Marcello Rubini in (here he is again) Fellini's La Dolce Vita, is played with plenty of aplomb by 54 year old actor Toni Servillo, most notably seen in Matteo Garrone's brilliant Gomorrah, and Sorrentino's own Il Divo. His performance is a centerpiece looking all around him at the titular great beauty, or grande bellezza, that is Roma, the Eternal City. Acting, much in the way Mastroianni did in La Dolce Vita, as a visual narrator of the sometimes decadent, sometimes mournful world of Roman society, Servillo's Jep is the proverbial lost soul in search of meaning in an otherwise unfulfilled life of constant parties and drink and women. A one time promising novelist, now relegated to writing cheap articles on Roman high society and its esoteric art world, Jep looks back on a life possibly wasted, longing for true companionship while simultaneously running from it, and yearning for his lost first love. It is as stunning a performance as the film itself is a stunning work of art.
Sorrentino's film, as Felliniesque as it wants to be (I keep going back to that F-word, don't I?), is essentially the story of a human tragedy, but not the kind usually associated with the genre of tragedy. For all intents and purposes, Jep is a successful person, a celebrated member of Rome's upper crust society, but inside he is lost and lonely and unsure of his true place in the world. He is part of a faux society, trapped inside a spiraling circle that leads deeper and deeper into despair and hopelessness, with no idea of how to escape this outwardly happy, inwardly depressing lifestyle. Servillo gives this multifaceted character the most bravura of performances (his chutzpah is off the so-called charts), and this performance is integral in making the film work, but it is Sorrentino giving his all as director, that lifts this tragedy to near epic proportions. With a swirling camera that takes in the great tragic beauty that is his Eternal City, a camera-eye that wraps itself up down around and through the heart of Rome's society, Sorrentino engulfs us with a visually Felliniesque (yep, that word again) brouhaha, showcasing both the city itself and Servillo's wayward Jep, and it all comes out so beautifully, it almost hurts. Easily one of the best films of the year (and the probable winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar), F-word laced or not, this old school cinephile was quite surprised as to not have the film end with a shot of Servillo turning away from the camera and walking down the beach. La Dolce Vita, indeed.
This review can also be read over at my main blog, All Things Kevyn.