Editor’s note: Our review of The Great Beauty originally ran during this year’s Cannes film festival, but we’re re-posting it as the film opens in limited theatrical release today.
Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), opens with a sizeable quote lengthy enough that the English subtitles at this evening’s Cannes Film Festival screening had to zoom through it at lightning speed, giving non-natives a chance only to speed-read the mounting context of the piece. Still, it isn’t long before a character brings us up to speed with the film’s focal question – “what do you enjoy most in life?”
Jep Gambardello (Tony Servillo) finds himself trying to answer this for most of The Great Beauty, which opens with a bizarre sequence in which a man taking snaps around Italy suddenly drops dead, hitting the thematic nail on the head right from the first frames. The scene soon enough changes to a seductive, lengthy montage set inside a club, a regular haunt of the 65-year-old Jep, now entering the final stages of his life and getting a little dewey-eyed about it. While still having trysts with beautiful women, he no longer enjoys it in the same way, and his existential crisis reaches its apex when he learns that his old flame Elisa has died suddenly.
Indeed, mortality is the key theme here, one brought home not just by Sorrentino’s pithy script but also his characteristically robust direction; the clever framing of a nun climbing a tree, for instance, makes it appear at first glance that she has hanged herself. The whole mood of the movie follows along this bent, indulging in seemingly intentionally morose, bathetic music and somber cinematography to reflect Jep’s transfixed state of mind.
Far from a gloomy meditation on death, however, Sorrentino also keenly attacks the self-important intelligensia of upper-class Italian society, satirizing the pomposity of hoity-toity artisans with razor-sharp aplomb. One deliciously scathing tirade in which Jep rips a self-righteous fellow writer to shreds garnered uproarious applause at today’s screening. Though Jep is himself a member of this collective, he is just about the only one with enough self-awareness to be rendered immune to its noxious effects.
While quirky and funny, The Grand Beauty also boasts a far more pronounced air of mysticism, both a fear of what might lie beyond this life and a desperate yearning for a return to youth. Brief flashbacks to Jeb’s first sexual encounter with Elisa are heart-stirring in their humanism, and perhaps might make us consider how we will be feeling at his advanced age, eager for that vibrant momentum once again.
Sorrentino does, admittedly, overplay his hand in a few areas, however; the motif of a beautiful ocean appearing on Jeb’s ceiling is a confusing CGI flourish that serves little purpose, while some references to the infamous Costa Concordia accident – as well as it even making a cameo along the way – seem rather ham-fistedly thrown in for the sake of currency. Also, at 142 minutes in length, there’s a fair argument to be made that we get too much of a good thing, and the film’s latter portions especially feel a tad superfluous.
Sorrentino’s darkly funny riff on the place we all end up considers the weight of the soul with a level of insight that suggests the director has been long-pondering his own existence despite his relatively young age of 42. Still, it is not a concern reserved exclusively for the old, as the director makes clear through an unexpectedly moving and universal thematic prism, accentuated by a rousing score and evocative cinematography.
The Upside: Sorrentino’s direction is as crisp as it has ever been, telling one of his more relatable tales in spite of the exotic setting. Servillo’s lead performance is exemplary.
The Downside: It runs rather on the long side, and those not somewhat au fait with these intellectual circles may find little of interest in the satire therein.
On the Side: In 2004, Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love was also nominated for the Palme D’Or.