Roman Around: Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) – DVD review
Fellini and Antonioni? Lightweights! Sorrentino shows his predecessors how to bring the house down, via carnal chaos and slyly ambivalent satire.
The Great Beauty
(Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Cinema, it has to be said, lends itself well to decadence. Subtlety be damned, it’s a medium of ostentation in décor, costume, music and camerawork, one long party of light and sound. But that also makes it the best medium with which to puncture dreams of decadence, something the Italians have known since the heyday of Fellini and Antonioni. Now you can add Paolo Sorrentino to their ranks.
The Great Beauty is a knowing update of art-house perennials, especially La Dolce Vita, with its rambling, episodic odyssey through the high life with a sardonic bon vivant as our guide. Certain details have changed – there’s no need for Papparazzo when everybody has an iPhone – but Sorrentino suggests that the same driftless ennui through vacuous parties, the same spiritual yearning for something more, remains the same.
What’s changed is how apolitical and lustful things are now, with sex practically the only subject of conversation, and anybody daring to bring the talk into more serious areas is silenced with withering, catty put-downs. The ensemble includes Z-list celebrities famous for terrible TV work, or popular clerics more interested in gluttony than theology, while Jep Gambardella, the group’s ringleader – and the film’s anti-hero – is a promising novelist who gave it all up to wade in the shallow waters of the world, such a dilettante he doesn’t even spot the news story on his doorstep. Such confluence of moral corruption and unquestioning media is a fairly strong hint that the real subject of the film, although he’s never mentioned by name, is Silvio Berlusconi.
Yet Sorrentino doesn’t condemn. Like Fellini, he’s half-entranced by the carnival and wields his camera like a punch-drunk spectator, leering to find the latest scandal. There’s none of Antonioni’s brittleness: if Sorrentino is going to bring down the bourgeoisie, he’s going to do it from the inside, and at times the film resembles La Notte with a humour injection. The choreography of the parties – a mix of gargoyle grimaces and hyper-stylised bad dancing – is intoxicating even as it repels. At one point, a character asks “is he taking the piss?” Jep gives the answer, “it’s hard to tell,” and sure enough the film is a constant push/pull between extremes.
[There’s possibly an acknowledgement here, too, of the way that cinema has replaced literature as the ideal art-form to tackle high society. Why bother sticking to words when it is possible to luxuriate in the décor and costumes, music and camerawork? Life has turned Jep – and Sorrentino – into voyeurs, bedazzled by the cinematic bling. The helpless glide of the camerawork, forever leering for the next moment of madness, has a visceral attraction that mere words could not convey.]
Certainly, this is a Rome seldom presented to the world. The opening set-piece, in which a Japanese tourist faints, suggests the reality is too hot for visitors to handle – except that Jep, and many of his friends, are non-natives, lured by the promise of the sweet life until they’ve turned sour. Or possibly the tourist just has the good taste to bow out having seen the beauty of the city without bothering with its underbelly. Note that Jep’s apartment overlooks the Colosseum but he is too jaded to bother looking at it, suggesting he has stuck around too long to feel its thrill – not least because he’s found new methods of debauched entertainment.
Toni Servillo’s performance captures the sense of growing old disgracefully. Compared to everyone around him, Servillo’s studied, aloof poise paints Jep as a man who is cool enough to know how uncool he’s becoming, but too louche to really care. That sounds like Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita, and Servillo pays due homage, but something about Jep’s mischievous enjoyment – especially when he’s trying to indoctrinate his girlfriend into the etiquette of his world – makes him a strangely youthful imp. Certainly, the backstory that Sorrentino gives to Jep suggests a generation stunted in its desires, incapable of moving on from adolescent urges, the malaise made all the deeper by decades of entitlement.
What gives the film its kick is that Sorrentino gives Jep the glimmer of a way out, a redemptive arc to recalibrate his lifestyle with his age – but Jep isn’t quite ready to give up the good life. In the film’s most surprising moment, it’s revealed that Jep can get access to the treasures of Rome, late at night when nobody’s there to see he has a soul. By this point, we really shouldn’t care – after all, this is yet another film about a man whose late-life crisis revolves how terrible it is to get whatever he wants – but as Sorrentino reveals the genuine beauty that has been forgotten amidst the excess, it is strangely moving to realise that the same applies to Jep as much as it does to Rome.