9 February 2014 | howard.schumann
A feast for the eyes, the ears, and the soul
Russian composer Vladimir Martynov said, "A man touches the truth twice. The first time is the first cry from a new born baby's lips and the last is the death rattle. Everything between is untruth to a greater or lesser extent." Many Hindu and Buddhist teachings also refer to the world as being Maya or illusion. According to French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, "Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength. It's a novel, just a fictitious narrative." In Paolo Sorrentino's stunning The Great Beauty, novelist Jep Ganbardella (Toni Servillo), unable to write another book since his successful first novel, The Human Apparatus, agrees, saying "After all... it's just a trick. Yes, it's just a trick." To discover that, however, he has to move past "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." Winner of the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film and Italy's entry for the 2014 Oscars in the same category, The Great Beauty is a character study of the decadent elites of modern Rome and by extension, contemporary society, yet it also moves beyond that to examine eternal themes of death, love, beauty, and the complexity of life and art.
The film begins on a jarring and surreal note and continues in an episodic Fellini-like vein throughout its two and one-half hour runtime - the sweet life revisited. After snapping a picture of the skyline with its beautiful domes and bell towers, a Japanese tourist visiting Janiculum Hill suddenly collapses and dies. We are suddenly shifted to a raucous 65th birthday party for Gambardella on a terrace opposite the Roman Colosseum where seemingly all the socialites, would-be artists, and pseudo-elites have gathered, perhaps the one-percenters of Roman society. One almost expects to see an "Occupy Via Veneto" demonstration in the streets below.
As Jep moves in and out and around the Roman high life, Sorrentino's acerbic put-downs and satire of the rich and famous travel with him. Now a journalist for a Vanity-Fair style culture magazine, he watches a performance artist run headlong into a brick wall, sustaining a deep cut on her head, then later interviews her, doggedly asking her to explain what she meant by "feeling vibrations." He waits his turn for a plastic surgeon at a Botox injection session, takes in a performance of a man throwing knives at a frightened-looking woman, observes a live giraffe at a historic site in rehearsal for a magic show, looks at a photographer's self-portraits that span his entire lifetime, and sees a 12-year-old girl heaving different colored cans of paint at a wall canvas while crying and screaming.
Through all the partying, the hedonism, and the ersatz art shows, there exists a stream of discernible emptiness that runs not only through his own life, but through the lives of those he surrounds himself with. After calling out a woman's pretensions, he softens the blow by telling her, "We're all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little. Don't you agree?" His relationship with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the daughter of his good friend, the struggling playwright Romano (Carlo Verdone), however, brings a new focus to his life but it is short-lived.
It is only when he hears of the death of Eliza, a girl he loved as a teenager, that he receives a wake-up call. Reliving his missed opportunity in flashbacks, he learns through her diary that she loved him all along and begins to reexamine the direction of his life. After a less than enlightening meeting with an aging cardinal (Roberto Herlitzka) who wants to talk only about his favorite recipes, he throws a dinner party for a 104-year-old woman rumored to be destined for sainthood who has spent her life working with the poor in Africa and who subsists on 40 grams of plant roots. Seeing life in all of its simplicity and wonder, she movingly points him in the direction of the authentic "great beauty" that he seeks.
Servillo is magnificent as the blocked writer seeking renewal and his presence makes every scene come alive with spontaneity. Adding to this is the gorgeous soundtrack featuring The Beatitudes of Martynov, choral works by David Lang, John Taverner, and Arvo Part, and the contemporary Yolanda Be Cool's We No Speak Americano. Though The Great Beauty is not a film about Rome per se, the cinematography of Luca Bigazza memorably captures the striking sights and sounds of The Eternal City, the ancient monuments juxtaposed with the modern buildings. Literally bursting with the pulse of flawed humanity, The Great Beauty is a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the soul.