In an article published on September 8, 2013 in The New York Times, Rachel Donadio reports that director Paolo Sorrentino’s stated purpose with his film The Great Beauty is to convey a general atmosphere.
This he does exquisitely and has the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film to prove it.
A 65-year-old writer – is he a blocked novelist after publishing a wildly successful book in his youth or a working journalist who has more to report than to say? – enjoys a lavish birthday party that is just another in an endless swath of such affairs. Then, he begins to reflect on his life.
Is this all there is? For Jep Gambardella (the wonderful Toni Servillo), it seems so.
If Sorrentino’s purpose is to point out the vacuous core beneath the elegant surface of the highest reaches of Italian society cutting across the arts, politics, and religion (a Cardinal who prefers to discuss the preparation of rabbit dishes than meatier subjects), then he succeeds brilliantly.
His evocation of this atmosphere (or maybe it is just the conga line) makes me think of another extravagantly rendered story of excess and emptiness (at least for the first portion), the pro-Castro propaganda film I Am Cuba. But, the latter film complements jaw-droppingly extravagant visuals with a firmly etched thesis (agree with it or not).
There is something that is not quite reconciled for me in The Great Beauty.
Jep wanders the streets of Rome and notices the joy of children and playful nuns. He sees the vibrant colors all around and even pictures indelibly beautiful images of the ocean on his bedroom ceiling. He eats well and drinks well and has the opportunity to engage art of various types and stripes whenever he chooses.
But, what does he make of the riches before him?
He is silent.
He doesn’t write beyond his assignments. He doesn’t convey much to us beyond his observations that at the age of 65 he no longer wants to spend time on anything he doesn’t want to do and his assertion that what is here is all there is.
You might argue that what is here (in his world) is quite enough.
Surely, the images are lush, richly saturated, artfully composed. I was awash in their beauty as one after another they unfolded on the screen. I carry with me the ceiling of sea and the panoramic view of the Coliseum from Jep’s balcony and one particular shot of an uncommonly beautiful staircase spiraling ever upward. I won’t forget wonderful sequences like that of soon-to-be saint with a flock of migrating birds. And, there is music…
These are the pieces, but what of the whole?
This is the problem for me.
Despite the beauty, elegant and engaging moments, and the good performances, I think there is more than what is here in the material world even if we restrict ourselves to considering the characters at play in the film.
Jep’s interior life, the little we know of it in snippets, like his observation early in the film that he came to Rome in his 20s and partied his way through the decades wanting not only to attend but also to have the power to declare which parties are failures, is not rich enough for me to form a connection with him while nothing about his exterior life changes. While there is much to recommend the film, something is missing for me.
Is this a great film? Possibly.
Did it move me? No.
Is it worth seeing? Sure. See what you think…