AFI Fest: ‘The Great Beauty’ (La Grande Bellezza)

Don’ t be frightened away from Paolo Sorrentino’s stunning “The Great Beauty” by what you don’t know. Set against the stunning background of Rome, with a beautiful soundtrack, this film follows a man who failed to live life while pretending to be a part of it.

You don’t have to know anything about the socio-political scene of Italy in general and Rome specifically as suggested by Rachel Donadio’s review for the New York Times.

It’s not necessary know about the tragedy of the Costa Concordia, a cruise ship that sank in January 2012 and remains partially submerged off the Tuscan coast at Isola del Giglio.

You don’t have to know about Fellini and his penchant for circus imagery and dwarves or “freaks” as John Caldwell Stubbs calls the “giants, dwarfs, hunchbacks, large fleshy women, transvestites, characters with large noses or hollow socket eyes” in his book “Federico Fellini as Auteur: Seven Aspects of His Films.”

You don’t need to know about Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” although if you’re a faithful reader of Roger Ebert’s it would be strange if you did not know. Ebert listed the 1960 film under his Great Movie banner in 1997. The movie is about a gossip columnist who covers the sweet life of “fading aristocrats, second-rate movies stars, aging playboys and women of commerce.” Marcello Mastroianni played Marcello, a “handsome, weary, desperate man, who dreams of someday doing something good, but is trapped in a life of empty nights and lonely dawns.”

The scene between Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in the fountain is famous. In “The Great Beauty,” you’ll see fountains, but there will be no replays of that scene.

Early on, we have the beauty of Rome–the fountains–being appreciated by tourists as artists singing a soaring religious melody juxtaposed against the sudden death of a Japanese tourist. The sound of the mixing languages–the tour guide’s heavily Italian-accented Japanese, the floating melody in German and the chatter in Italian–is the white noise of Rome.

Our hero is a journalist, who once wrote a novel, but not is satisfied with writing about other artists.  That might remind you of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” but this writer, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), has not prostituted himself literally. He is not a kept man, but he is alone on this 65th birthday, even in the midst of a swirling, pulsing party of Rome’s well-to-do and their do-nothing entourages. It’s the kind of party you probably should have given up in your late twenties, unless you were wise enough to avoid them totally.

Jep’s apartment overlooks the Coliseum and he’s downstairs from a mysterious man of elegance. Everyone in Jep’s life in elegant.  They drink, they talk about art and they dress, eat and drink artfully except when they drink too much.

A death of a woman, Jep has known brings him to consider his past. According to her husband, her diary was filled with longing for Jep and only mentioned the husband in two paltry sentences.

This is Italy, a country where a politician campaigned by baring her breasts and the director Sorrentino seems to have a healthy appreciation for them as Jep has affairs and visits a strip joint. You’ll also see full frontal male nudity, but this is presented as ridiculous and not part of the lovingly filmed scenery.

Ebert watched “La Dolce Vita” at several different times in his life and it spoke to him differently each time. You might find this is true for “The Great Beauty.” Again we have a writer. We even have aristocracy who are available for rent.

As a writer, I recall awakening one day and looking around at the people who surrounded me. Did I want to be like them? All were enjoying the culture that Los Angeles has to offer, but when they went home, they were utterly alone. Can such people really understand the beauty in life by being supposedly objective judges sitting outside the milieu and casting critical, snippy opinions about those who are living, loving and producing?

Yet if you are young, you might see Jep otherwise. You might envy him. You might want to be part of that high life and cocktail fueled party scene. You might consider that the sweet life and you might see great beauty in it.

“La Grande Bellezza” is part of the showcase of Italian Cinema in Los Angeles: “Cinema Italian Style.” The movie screens tonight, 14 November 2013 at  Egyptian Theatre – 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, CA – Map

If you miss that screening, the movie will open at the Nuart next week.

On Friday, 22 November 2013, the director and co-writer Paolo Sorrentino will be present after the 4:45 p.m. and the 8 p.m. showings. The film will show for one week only.




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