Saturday, July 12, 2014

OVP: The Great Beauty (2013)

Film: The Great Beauty (2013)
Stars: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Oscar History: 1 nomination/1 win (Best Foreign Language Film-Italy*)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

It is a dangerous game to play with the works of masters.  Frequently you find even the most accomplished of filmmakers trying to pay homage to those that they admired as children and coming up short.  So fifteen minutes into Paolo Sorrentino's well-received The Great Beauty (not only did it win the Oscar for Foreign Language film, but also the Globe Globe and the BAFTA), I'll admit to being a bit nervous, as we had clearly entered Fellini territory, and Fellini territory at its peak.  The hedonistic dance parties and the thin line between sexual and grotesque was being jumped with abandon.  You half expected to see Anita Ekberg emerge from the Trevi Fountain.  It was provocative, shocking, and something that I didn't think Sorrentino (whom I have not enjoyed in the past) could keep up with, but thankfully I was wrong.  Though not quite at the height of what Fellini did with something like 8 1/2, this is still a grand and opulent movie that continually surprises and never quite falls into cliche, a tricky feat for a film so indebted to another filmmaker.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film's greatest asset may be the way that it doesn't quite give you what you anticipate.  The movie centers around a man named Jep Gambardella (Servillo), an aging socialite and playboy who once upon a time wrote a truly landmark and brilliant novel but either out of laziness or grave fear of the sophomore slump, he didn't pursue a promising career as an author, but instead as a pointed interviewer who spends most of his days throwing lavish parties, and after his 65th birthday, wanders around Rome.

What you'd expect from this film is a come-to-Jesus moment for Jep, where he realizes the errors of his ways and wanders through the city finding his own history and realizing that love or family is what was important to him and he would return to those cliches.  If this were an American film that would certainly be the case, but that's not true of Sorrentino's picture.  Instead, we're given what seems at first to be a meaningless string of scenes together.  Jep is clearly affected by getting older and by where his relationship with himself has gone, and yes, as the film closes we see him begin what will surely be a second great novel while encompassing the ghost of a past life, but in the middle is something wholly different than what we'd usually see in such a film-abstract, beautiful concepts.  The Great Beauty, which opens with a shocking death, functions almost as a silent film, as we walk through the decaying beauty of Rome.  It's clearly a metaphor for the closing life of Jep, who has lived a really aesthetic and creative life, even if it was only fleeting and rarely concrete.  As far as metaphors go, it's a doozy, and a great one.

Late in the film we see Jep encounter a living saint, Santa Maria, who is clearly a woman of great accomplishment, though there's no way of knowing what is fiction and what is fact.  She is the only person who can get Jep to begin to admit why he never wrote a second novel (he was looking for "the great beauty," hence the title), and this kicks off what is a truly jaw-dropping final act, with her crawling to her death while Jep recalls the one moment in his life that seemed to matter (when he lost his virginity) but still seems confused as to what the meaning of life and death is, and perhaps it's all just illusion that encompasses our lives.  It's the sort of final scene that master's theses are written about, and I'm not going to dissect it too much here (perhaps I'll save it for a Master's thesis?), but it is deeply moving and hauntingly beautiful, and most importantly it works.  This is the sort of giant final scene that would drown a less accomplished and confident film, but after two hours of snapshots of the human experience, we're ready for a big message.

Before this final act we have already seen the beauty of Rome and the way that life dismisses people and only certain individuals hang on for years within it.  Jep has clearly been popular and made lots of acquaintances and lovers through the years, but everyone always seems to be "catching up with him."  We are left to assume that Jep, so happy and confident, had what some would call an empty life, but if you look at all the beauty, you see that this was the life he was supposed to lead and maybe the one he was meant to lead.  It's a powerful, wonderful message from a film that's marketing campaign made it look like yet another midlife crisis movie, and a completely unexpected one.

I would be remiss if I didn't say that the cinematography and art direction in this movie is divine.  Outside of maybe a Terrence Malick movie, I haven't seen something so clear and laced with both religious iconography and perfect lighting in years.

I could go on and on about this movie, but I will probably end it there (we'll be diving a bit further into the film when we do our OVP write-up of it, as the 2013 OVP starts next week!!!), but I'll end with our usual comments questions.  What did you think of The Great Beauty?  Were you surprised by how much you liked it as well?  And where would you rank it in the 2013 foreign film Oscar race? Share in the comments!

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