Monday, 19 May 2014

The Great Beauty

Wow (yeah, it’s been awhile)! I waited far too long to watch the 2014 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. The Great Beauty wasn’t released in Winnipeg until March and I lost my brief chance to see it on the big screen, which is very sad because it is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. The cinematography is extraordinary. So is everything else about this film; it’s the best film I’ve seen since I watched Before Midnight last June. It’s such a relief to see that masterpieces like this are still being made, though apparently not on this side of the ocean.

Like Gloria, The Great Beauty is about someone who is aging and seems bored with life. But, unlike Gloria, The Great Beauty is a magnificent work of cinematic art, with layers of depth and intelligence that leave films like Gloria in the dust. It reminds one immediately of Fellini’s 1960 classic La Dolce Vita (this is obviously intended), but I liked The Great Beauty a lot more.

The Great Beauty stars Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella, a wealthy journalist in Rome who has just turned 65 and takes this opportunity to reflect on his life. While there are some important flashbacks, most of Jep’s reflections come in the midst of the life he is experiencing at 65. It’s a life full of the distractions wealth provides, including many friends, but it seems devoid of meaning or passion. Indeed, Jep seems to conclude that life is ultimately pointless, and that it is lived only for the occasional moments of great beauty, for which he has been constantly searching since the love of his life left him four decades before.

Back then, he wrote a prize-winning novel. Everyone wants to know why he hasn’t written any novels since then. His reply is that nothing has happened in his life during the past forty years that is worth writing about. This seems to suggest that writing requires deep pain or emotion and cannot spring from the comfortable boring life Jep has been living for forty years.

Jep nevertheless appears to be always playing the role of a writer, floating through life as an observer. He begins the day by joking with his maid/cook, then wanders around Rome or looks down from his penthouse balcony, which overlooks the coliseum. He spends evenings drinking with his friends (whom he is not averse to insulting in an arrogant dismissive way) and spends passionless nights with one of his female admirers.

Jep has decided he is now too old to do anything he doesn’t want to do, which seems to mean he doesn’t have to worry about hurting the feelings of those around him. That begins to change when he meets Ramona, the daughter of an old friend, but ultimately that relationship will become just another fleeting moment of great beauty.

Despite Jep’s many flaws, we get a sense of a deep goodness residing within, along with a hunger for spiritual awakening. The church plays a prominent role in The Great Beauty and is variously represented by a cardinal who is primarily interested in cooking and a 104-year-old nun who has lived her life in poverty and eats only roots (because roots are important). 

I could go on and on about Jep, a sad lonely cynical man who is one of the most haunting and fully-realized characters in recent films (and who is played so brilliantly by Servillo). What makes this all the more amazing is that Jep’s melancholic self-reflection as a man approaching old age is the creation of a relatively young filmmaker. Paolo Sorrentino is only 43.

But The Great Beauty is as much about the city of Rome as it is about Jep. In this endlessly thought-provoking satire of contemporary Rome, the great city itself is perhaps condemned for its pointless existence during the past forty years (except for moments of great beauty). 

Of course, if Janelle is correct in her assessment that Sorrentino must be as cynical about life and people as Jep, then I have my worries. But while there are characters in Sorrentino’s previous films who also echo such cynicism, I don’t believe that’s where he is coming from (BTW I have thoroughly enjoyed every Sorrentino film I have watched).

In any event, I look forward to repeated viewings (I already can’t wait to see it again) and give the gorgeous The Great Beauty a very easy ****. My mug is up! Since it was only released in Canada in 2014, it is assured a place in my top ten films of the year (the way this year is shaping up, it could easily be number one). 

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