“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This remains to be one of my favourite idioms of all time. The beauty of art is very rarely understood unanimously or collectively, instead it becomes an expression of human beings that flourishes through argument, rebuttals and questions. Fortunately, the same can be said with the film in review. One of the many beauties of The Great Beauty remains to be it’s amazing ability to allow the perceptions of many to decide the beauty and horror that is contained in it’s small, avant-garde shell.
More often than not, the film is a collection of images, situations and nuances where it’s meaning is just as dumbfounding or interpretative as any abstract portrait or painting. From scenes involving a magician disappearing a giraffe where the payoff is never explained, an opera choir singing whilst an Asian tourist falls face-first, dead, or the image of a capsized boat in the water off the coast of Rome, there are more than just a few instances where the film itself is a colourful and fantastical ode to the late great Federico Fellini. Rather than just being a Fellini wannabe film, writer/director Paolo Sorrentino gives us a glimpse into the many questionable lifestyle formulas within the epicentre of Italy’s posh social elites, the city of Rome.
The film is driven by way of high-class professional socialite Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a rousing misogynist, or what he prefers to be called, a misanthrope, whose life since the age of twenty-six has surrounded the snobby upper-class Italian elite and their artistic appetites. Jep is a writer who is still riding the waves of success from his first and only book, L’Apparato Umano (The Human Apparatus), and whose presence is still heavily felt in Rome. Like so many great writers, Jep is completely aware of his potential to impact the lives of others, yet rather than embrace his talent, he prefers to use his status as a dignified God-like scribe for the sake of…nothing really. As he struts his fine-tailored suit throughout the underbelly of Rome’s busy nightlife and sleeps while Rome’s financially struggling lower and middle class work, Jep enjoy his life drinking, smoking, sleeping, eating, socializing, and complaining about the trivial matters that plague the Italian upper-class. As Jep narrates, “It’s all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise, silence and sentiment, emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world”. Exactly.
Contrary to it’s marketing and promotional material, the film itself is beautifully shot, but far from following any sort of linear storyline. Jumping in and out of flash-backs of Jep’s youth, the film is a vessel to understanding Italy’s obsession with keepin up appearances, and actually has less to do with Jep’s life as a whole. The film is loaded with scenes involving examples of ridiculous high art practices; from wall-slamming nude women, knife-throwing gypsy men, and volatile little girls throwing paint cans onto a blank canvas. The Great Beauty is a film whose commentary on the ridiculousness of Rome’s posh few are questioned and palpable, not because of it’s unbelievability, but more-so for it’s deep-rootedness in truth and reality. I have personally never been to Rome, or Italy for that matter, but much like the film itself, Sorrentino allows audience members to envision Rome in the same way he uses it; as a portable backdrop for the countless fashion photo shoots, bizarre street art performers and a stage for the operatic.
Aside from the people, there is a richness underneath The Great Beauty, which is its commentary on beauty itself. Dabbing into the world of plastic surgery, clubbing, and high-art, Sorrentino’s lens is a tell-all opening to the very haggard and inconstant flashes of beauty that become borderline repulsive and monstrous. Eventually, everyone surrounding Jep becomes more and more inhuman and almost caricature like, far from Jep’s initial desires. It is not until one of Jep’s previous lovers dies where Jep is, pulled back into the world where everyone, including himself, is in search for the great beauty of life.
Although it’s title may be The Great Beauty, the film itself becomes a de-glamourization and far-fetched reality of the abusive and overindulgent spectacle of a frivolous and uncaring class of socialites. The Great Beauty is undoubtedly an intricate and wholly cinematic apparatus, but, as Jep says, it is also just a film that highlights Italy’s “blah, blah, blah…” in high manner and fashion.
Night Film Reviews: 6 out of 10 Stars.
Fellini masterpiece or complete knock-off? Is The Great Beauty beautiful artistic cinema or abstract trash? Leave your comments and thoughts below and let us know what you think for Italy’s official Foreign Language Oscar entry.