Great Beauty, The (2013)

Director:  Paolo Sorrentino
Cast:  Toni ServilloCarlo VerdoneSabrina Ferilli 
Plot:  Jep Gambardella has seduced his way through the lavish nightlife of Rome for decades, but after his 65th birthday and a shock from the past, Jep looks past the nightclubs and parties to find a timeless landscape of absurd, exquisite beauty.

Genre:  Comedy / Drama
Awards:  Won 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Language Feature.  Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  142min
Rating:  M18 for nudity.

“We're all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little... Don't you agree?”

With The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino establishes himself as one of the great contemporary filmmakers working in Italy today.  This could be the defining work of his still young career, a picture that is at once dazzling yet elegant, intensely rhythmic but also quietly poetic. 

After the critical success of This Must Be the Place (2011) with Sean Penn as an ageing rock star, and before that Il Divo (2008), The Great Beauty is like the culmination of Sorrentino's style and themes in a film that begins with two impressively-shot sequences that would eventually give us a taste of the duality that the picture is trying to explore – the bittersweet elegy of existence, and the exuberant beat of life.

The Great Beauty is about a man named Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) who is caught up in the hypnotic flow of decadent living best exemplified by his frequent visits to nightclubs and hosting booze-and-dance parties at his luxurious penthouse.  He is a famous writer, who ever only published a book.  Now he is old and finds no meaning in his life. 

Together with his friends, all of them belonging to Rome’s elites, they ruminate about life, drink and party till the wee hours.  As Jep puts it, he only sleeps when people wake up.  He roams around Rome and finds beauty in the city, of architecture and its people, but ‘the great beauty’ remains elusive to him.

Sorrentino gives us a picture of stunning cinematography.  The camera is often roving, capturing a myriad of angles of action and movement that give viewers something more than just a visual impression.  It gives us the feel of the moment, sometimes stretched blissfully into an eternity.

This is best seen from the nighttime rooftop party sequences in the picture, which marry music, movement and light to riveting effect.  Needless to say, The Great Beauty is superbly edited in this instance.  Sorrentino sets the gold standard for the filming of such hedonistic indulgences.

Clearly influenced by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), The Great Beauty is an inspired reimagining of the Italian classic for the contemporary filmgoer.  It is not a remake, but a thematic cousin.  I see it as a translation of theme and style from one master to a master-in-the-making. 

Brought together by a singularly effective performance by Servillo, Sorrentino’s latest is a must-watch and arguably the most accomplished picture to come out of Italy for many years.  It is about the past and the future.  It is about our faith and our desolation.  In other words, it is about the Now, and it will set you thinking.

Verdict:  An extravagant and dazzling yet elegant and poetic masterwork from one of Italy’s great contemporary filmmakers.


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