The most obvious thing to say about Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” (“La Grande Bellezza”) is that it is usually considered the leading candidate to snag an Oscar for best foreign film in March.
And that is a great injustice. But then the Oscar for best foreign film is a great continuing scandal that no one seems to have the slightest inclination to change. The scandal is that films are nominated by countries. The Oscars long ago allowed the entire category to be taken over by the tourist industry and the official engines of industrial public relations.
The result, just this year alone, is that France didn’t see anything in “Blue Is the Warmest Color” that would attract tourist bucks or provide good propaganda for French filmmaking. How, after all, could a government endorse so much graphic lesbian sex, even if it occurred in a film whose portrait of young love and sexual awakening was as exquisitely sensitive as it is in “Blue Is the Warmest Color?”
So it’s likely, then, that when the Oscars roll around, Sorrentino’s film is many people’s guess for the movie we’re stuck with as the foreign film winner.
I was not at all happy with that, watching the first half hour of the 2½ hour film.
It begins as satire of the Roman “Sweet Life” of the most coarse sort – made worse by its pride in dangling its homage to Federico Fellini’s classic “La Dolce Vita” from the camera lens in almost every scene.
In the English publicity packet, Sorrentino, said “Of course ‘Roma’ and ‘La Dolce Vita’ are works that you cannot pretend to ignore when you take on a film like the one I wanted to make” (About “the contradictions, the beauties, the scenes I have witnessed of the people I’ve met in Rome.”)
“They are two masterpieces, and the golden rule is that masterpieces should be watched and not imitated. I’ve tried to stick to that. But it’s also true that masterpieces transform the way we feel and perceive things. They condition us, despite ourselves. So I can’t deny that those films are indelibly stamped on me and may have guided my film. I just hope they guided me in the right direction.” (Nevermind that “Roma,” to many, is only half a “masterpiece.”)
My initial impatience and alienation from the outright derivativeness of “The Great Beauty” continually softened as the film progressed until the growing melancholy of its final hour won me over completely – and I do mean completely.
This is a film that has vastly more going on than originally seems to be the case.
Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” is one of the most unfairly underrated films in the entire canon of classic European cinema. It’s a unique film separating Fellini’s career from the neo-realism he started with to the later “Maestro Fellini” ego masterworks that began with “8½.”
“La Dolce Vita” was still “objective” realism, and it is both fresh and haunting when seen now, despite its pervasive influence on everything – films, novels and society, especially in Italy.
It is here that Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” is a continuing surprise. His hero, like Fellini’s, is a compromised journalist living the empty high life.
Sorrentino’s Jep Gambardella is played by superb Italian actor Toni Servillo who is, in life, more than a decade older than “La Dolce Vita” then-star Marcello Mastroianni was when Fellini’s film was made. Jep is a novelist whose one acclaimed novel has made him the kind of wealthy Roman journalist who lives in a beautifully terraced apartment directly across from the Colosseum and is on first call when there are 104-year-old saints available for only the second interview in their lives. (Her first question to her melancholy would-be interlocutor: Why didn’t you write a second novel?)
In between, there is a kind of neo-Fellini travelogue through Roman wealth and decadence, full of magnificent cinematography by Luca Bigazzi. We watch nude artists bash their heads against ancient stone aqueducts, and the hero’s less-than-impassioned sex life, and his sorrow over the death of a mistress and the self-revelation it begins to engender.
A direct variant of Fellini’s scene with a famous churchman has Jep trying to ask an eminent cardinal – the next pope, some say – about spiritual matters, only to hear lengthy disquisitions on haute cuisine.
But by the time this beautifully made film pulls into its stunningly melancholy finale, you have to admit that its all-too-obvious homage to Fellini’s orphan midlife masterpiece “La Dolce Vita” is worthy of mention in the same sentence. (Watching this finale, Cannes Film Festival audiences were frozen into rapt attention by the extraordinary soundtrack beauty of the Kronos Quartet’s performance of Vladimir Martynov’s “The Beatitudes.”)
No small triumph there. A golden statue at the Oscars – despite the misbegotten category – could be far worse.
The great beauty
3½ stars (Out of 4)
Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Febrilli
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Running time: 142 minutes
Rating: No rating, but R equivalent for sex, nudity and language.
The Lowdown: A 65-year-old novelist and journalist looks for meaning in contemporary Rome in a film that’s a direct descendant of Federico’s Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” In Italian with subtitles.