Watching “The Great Beauty”
For the first hour of “The Great Beauty,” this year’s Oscar winner for best foreign film, I was convinced it was one of the best films of 2013. But the film runs for about 140 minutes, and by the time it ended, I was far less certain. “The Great Beauty” is a feast for the senses and an unforgettable sensory experience — but what does all the flash, pageantry and debauched exuberance really add up to? I’m not sure.
Helmed by the talented Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, “The Great Beauty” is the latest in a long line of films about soul-sick Europeans who have grown weary of living lives devoid of meaning and purpose. The film’s obvious spiritual forbear is “La Dolce Vita,” the legendary Federico Fellini film about a gossip writer awakening to the shallowness of his decadent, party-filled existence. “The Great Beauty” also owes a debt to the works of fellow Italian Michelangelo Antonioni, who spent his career exploring the lives of people who are highly educated, wealthy and completely bored with themselves, their friends and life in general.
“The Great Beauty’s” protagonist is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who is celebrating his 65th birthday at the utterly intoxicating rooftop party that opens the film. (Sorrentino is second-to-none when it comes to filming party scenes.) Jep is a writer who penned a highly acclaimed novel 40 years earlier, but never followed it up; today he writes fluffy, entertaining articles for a magazine. His real vocation, it seems, is hob-nobbing with Rome’s high society and hosting all-night shindigs. “I’m a writer. I’m not a pimp,” he tells someone. Given the lavishness of his lifestyle, it’s easy to see why he feels the need to draw a distinction.
Jep’s birthday, as well as the death of a woman he loved when he was younger, prompts introspection. He accompanies a beautiful woman home and then leaves her, saying that “After turning 65, I realize I can’t waste time doing things I don’t want to do.” But it isn’t really clear what Jep wants to do, or where he wants to go. Throughout his entire adult life, socializing has been his top priority. Now he wants something more meaningful? When asked why he never wrote another novel, he explains that Rome is distracting. Which is true, but a more serious artist would make time for his art. That said, Sorrentino’s Rome is seductive and vibrant and never shuts down. It would take an exceptionally disciplined person to turn down an invitation to a rooftop party overlooking the Coliseum and stay home to write.
What makes “The Great Beauty” such a good time, rather than an exhausting study of superficial and aimless people, is the fact that Jep is very good company. He’s witty and kind; even when ruthlessly detailing one of his friend’s flaws, he tries to soften the blow by saying his flaws are just as great. He’s also a man of fine taste, with an appreciation for great art; when he befriends a younger woman, he shows her beautiful art, introduces her to interesting people and proves to be an entertaining and enjoyable conversationalist. When the woman SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY MORE IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! dies unexpectedly, he is genuinely saddened, just as he’s saddened by the death of a troubled young man. These deaths underscore Jep’s newfound concern that he’s wasted his life, and would like to do something noteworthy with the time that’s left to him.
“The Great Beauty” is one of the best-looking, visually richest films of 2013, and it contains a number of images that are delightfully surreal and mysterious, such as the ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT! birds that appear on Jep’s balcony toward the end of the film, and a private, nighttime tour of a collection of classic sculptures. But at times the film feels a bit overstuffed, and I wondered whether “The Great Beauty” would seem more meaningful and poignant if it were just a bit leaner — if it pared down its lengthy running time and lingered a bit more on key details. It is a good film, but it never completely steps out from the shadow of “La Dolce Vita.” Of course, “La Dolce Vita” is regarded by many as one of the greatest films ever made, so maybe that’s asking a bit much.
Some have hailed “The Great Beauty” as a masterwork. I am not convinced of its greatness, but maybe I’ll revisit it and feel differently. Like its characters, it will be interesting to see how the film ages. Only time will tell.
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