A love poem to the Italian capital and a searing portrait of its glitterati, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is a virtuoso vision of fiddling while Rome burns.
The Great Beauty
La Dolce Vita by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
As the credits roll on Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, we’re treated to an upstream treat moseying up the Tiber beneath Rome’s iconic bridges. For Sorrentino, it’s an unusually understated tribute to the eternal city, shared between tourists, nuns and priests of the high life. But following in the footsteps of Rossellini, Fellini and Nanni Moretti, La Grande Bellezza is Sorrentino’s very own personal vision of this clash of cultures – his baroque style perfectly suited to the ecclesiastical majesty and bunga bunga merrymaking of the Italian capital – scored on the one hand by Zbigniew Preisner’s Dies Irae and on the other with El Gato DJ’s Mueve La Colita. A city of two halves, by night and day, La Grande Bellezza is Sorrentino’s portrait of Rome’s rich and famous in all their fragile vanity living the high life in Rome – their eternal playground.
A choir sings over the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, a Japanese tourist, overcome by the beauty of the Italian capital, drops dead. Jep Gamberdella (Tony Servillo) Rome’s ultimate socialite, is holding a party for his birthday. But beneath the burlesque, drinking, drugs and dancing, Jep has a sensitive side – an acute observer of the curious customs of the glitterati. He walks Rome’s streets, attends its clubs, parties, weddings and funerals, the once writer of a prize-winning novel now writing sensational interviews for his dwarfish editor, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola). But when he learns of the death of his first love, he’s forced to reconsider his life – the eternal, (sexually ambiguous) bachelor, unable to write his second novel, debilitated by hope of finding the great beauty and filling his life with vacuous Roman nothingness.
After the globe-trotting histrionics and tangential plotting of This Must Be The Place, Sorrentino has returned home for a Roman holiday. And the master of baroque is uniquely placed to capture the heady bravura of Italy’s excesses, his opening party scene breathtaking in its lavish style, gloriously paced and lovingly characterised. And just as in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Proust again comes under attack, parodied as the height of wannabe pretension with the vapid ambitions of a socialite TV actress who flits from giving up acting in order to write a Proustian novel, or maybe even direct a film. But it’s the glitterati who are well and truly skewered in Sorrentino’s film, roasted in a bonfire of the vanities for their obsessions with fame and money – epitomised by Lorena the showgirl who is, of course, famous for doing nothing.
Opening with a quotation from Céline’s Journey To The End Of Night, La Grande Bellezza plunges us into Jep’s world of an existential search for meaning beyond the petty pleasures of daily life. It’s a literary veneer embodied by Jep, caught between the pleasures of the flesh and his desire to find the Great Beauty and write a novel to rival his first. And like his hero, we sense the Roman director may be looking for more than the coke-fuelled, Botox-plumped vagaries of the socialite’s Roman lifestyle, searching for the Great Story amidst all this empty posturing. Sorrentino though isn’t Gambardello, and as we pass sequentially through notions of children, romance, and friendship to fill this existential void, it’s only memory and nostalgia that can give Jep’s life meaning. Sorrentino though is no one-hit-wonder, like his literary hero, nor suffocated by inaction, and this Roman extravaganza the very proof he’s found his Great Beauty.
An end-of-days furioso of Italy’s elite looking for life beneath the noise – keeping each other company in their communal despair and themselves distracted by extravagant parties, exploited child painters and hands of late-night museum bridge, The Great Beauty is a masterpiece of style and hedonistic excess. There’s perhaps no Great Meaning to Sorrentino’s film beyond its socialite parodies, earthly delights and Roman wonderment, but as a dazzling and mesmerising vision of Rome’s carnivalesque, it’s a symphony of the city to rival Fellini’s Roma. It’s beautifully controlled in its excesses and excessive in its beauty. And just like Anita Ekberg’s dip in the Trevi Fountain, utterly spellbinding.
The Great Beauty is released on 6th September 2013 in the UK