The Great Beauty
One of the most acclaimed films of the 20th Century, Federico Fellini’s 1960 “La Dolce Vita” remains an eye-opening classic. It gave the world the word “paparazzi,” as well as one of the most memorably suave protagonists in cinema via the journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), who moves through the fast lanes of Roman society in the kind of tailored black suit and skinny tie that would become de rigueur in punk-new wave circles two decades later. Roger Ebert listed La Dolce Vita in his Top 10 Great Films of all time, saying that, "Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal."
Paolo Sorrentino’s new film “The Great Beauty” (La Grande Bellezza) revisits La Dolce Vita territory half a century later. Its comparably suave and worldly protagonist is one-book wonder Jep Gambardella, who on the occasion of his 65th birthday ruminates on the literary promise he surrendered for “the sweet life.” Visually stunning and rife with surprises, Sorrentino’s film pays deft homage to maestro Fellini, continuing the exploration of the anteceding masterpiece’s thematic concerns while constructing an existential “moment of discovery” that is very much of our own time. This is La Dolce Vita’s half-century morning-after, and a hallucinatory hangover it proves. Like the source, this is also a mesmerizing paean to The Eternal City, and Sorrentino depicts an equally timeless cross-section of Roman society: beautiful, grotesque, pathetic –always fascinating. In this respect Sorrentino is again comparable to Fellini, albeit without the mockery that could easily come of a lesser director’s contrivances. He picks up the master’s beacon and illuminates familiar as well as new territory, his film confidently taking its place in and reaffirming the great legacy of Italian cinema.
A good part of The Great Beauty’s magic is creditable to lead actor Toni Servillo as the exceedingly self-aware narrating protagonist. Shrewdly sophisticated and impeccably stylish, Jep is the kind of Italian gentleman who makes it instantly apparent why Italians say “Americans dress in the dark.” (They do say that, you know.) Like his screen ancestor Marcello, the ostensibly cynical Jep is at heart generous and sentimental. Unlike the former, Jep forgivingly embraces his own cynicism, treating the film’s most desperate and superficial characters with the same equanimity as the most sensitive and spiritual ones. Through him, The Great Beauty not only transcends its cynicism; it achieves a humanism in the tradition of the Italian Neo-realists and Post-realists such as Fellini. As with the other great beauties of cinema, indeed as with The Eternal City and great Italian style itself, this is one to return to again and again.
by Jorge Socarras