The Great Beauty (2013)

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What can I say about this behemoth of a film? Finding words for something like The Great Beauty is an extraordinarily difficult task. I could list an entire dictionary of terms to explain what I felt about The Great Beauty – complex, hilarious, meaningful, brilliant, twisted. It is a film unlike any you will ever see, and very rarely do I have regrets, but not watching The Great Beauty before now is one of my biggest regrets. It is an amazing film, and it is going to be a mammoth task to actually talk about it here, but I will endeavor to do so.

It was a mistake for me to have watched Paolo Sorrentino’s films in the order that I did. The first film of his I watched was the messy This Must Be the Place, which was flawed beyond belief, and made me wonder why this man was being praised as a visionary. Then I saw Youth a few weeks ago, and I was blown away by the brilliance that lay with Sorrentino. Then came The Great Beauty, which was unlike anything I have ever seen before. It is clear why Sorrentino is being hailed as the next great European director – he managed to take such a contrived story and make it original and unique.

The film tells the story of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), an ex-author and current journalist for an offbeat Italian publication. He is an unhappy man – he spends his days interviewing strange characters and throwing extravagent parties. However, despite being surrounded by dozens of people on a daily basis, and knowing every person in Rome, Jep is undeniably lonely, and throughout The Great Beauty, Jep searches for meaning, and takes the audience on that journey with him. Like many of us, Jep has everything he needs, but lacks what he truly wants – answers to life’s biggest questions, and when you have friends, money and fame, sometimes all you actually want is some meaning. That is essentially what The Great Beauty is about. Much like Youth, there is no direct plot that drives the film, instead the story takes the form of a stream-of-consciousness journey throughout the life of our protagonist, and the various people he encounters.

Like all great films, we are presented with a main character who serves as our guide throughout the journey. Toni Servillo plays Jep, who is a wonderfully unlikable man, but we cannot avoid his charms, and he is truly an endearing figure. Servillo is wonderful in this role – so wry, so bitter and so dedicated to this character. He gives a masterclass of acting, and what is wonderful about his performance is how he doesn’t have moments of screaming and shouting, but rather conveys his emotions through nuanced exchanges with other characters. He has many great monologues, where we are taken into the mind of the character. Servillo is so dignified, even at the character’s most bleak moments, and he carries the role brilliantly. I am inclined to say that alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Servillo gives the best male performance of the year. The rest of the cast is a shifting set of misfits, all doing their duty of supporting Servillo. I have to mention Giovanna Vignola, who almost steals the show as Servillo’s friend and publisher, and is responsible for some of the most humorous moments in the film.

Of course, there will be detractors of this film. It is understandable why people might dislike this film. Sorrentino is truly an acquired taste, and there is no continuum for him – either one views him as a complex and visionary auteur, or as a pretentious hack. You either adore his films, or you completely hate them. It is clear why some would dislike The Great Beauty. One reason could be that it is simply trying to update La Dolce Vita to the modern day, and that Sorrentino is incapable of being original, and that he will forever be sucking at the teat of Federico Fellini, maestro himself. There is no doubt that Sorrentino has tried to model himself after Fellini, and many directors do have their inspirations. The only reason why it works with Sorrentino is that he has the talent to accomplish it perfectly. Instead of his films being Fellini knockoffs, they feel as if they were films that would appear alongside Fellini’s greatest films. Sorrentino strikes me as a filmmaker that should be called a contemporary of Fellini, rather than a knockoff. It seems that Fellini’s talent was reincarnated in Sorrentino. It goes without saying that Sorrentino is one of the best directors working today. Fellini would be proud to have made The Great Beauty. 

This film is absolutely stunning. One of the first scenes in this film is a scene at a party – loud music, bright colors and a whole array of interesting characters having a good time (which is pretty much code for “making a fool of oneself”). It is a strikingly beautiful scene in how it captures the excess of the high life unlike any other film has been able to do. It is equal parts heartbreaking as it is hilarious, and we learn volumes about the characters, just from this scene alone. It is a stark contrast to The Great Gatsby, which was released the same year, and also attempted to show excess in huge parties, but failed and created empty, meaningless displays of extravagance. The Great Beauty puts meaning into every facet of this film, and the emotional blow it deals you is absolutely groundbreaking.

The Great Beauty is an astonishing film. It has so much meaning, and comes close to answering some incredibly complex philosophical questions. It is often hilarious, truly meaningful and emotionally powerful. It will leave you weeping, laughing and applauding at the sheer brilliance. It is certainly one of the best films Italy has ever produced, and the talents of Paolo Sorrentino is without any question.

I mentioned that I could list an infinity of words to describe this film, and to be perfectly honest, there is one word that I feel encompasses this film more than any other film – beautiful.

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