Dip into any review of writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s award-winning film La Grande Bellezza (English title: The Great Beauty, Academy Award and Golden Globe winner, Best Foreign Language Film) and you will find a reference to Federico Fellini.
That is hardly surprising since La Grande Bellezza is in part a homage to the fabled Italian film-maker. Felliniesque fingerprints are everywhere.
Yet it would be less than fair to simply think of this film as a hot-wired update of Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita.
Signor Sorrentino has a soul and an intelligence all his own.
In one memorable scene the cameras lovingly caress art treasures of ancient Rome. In sharp contrast the scene with crowds dancing on the spacious rooftop patio of author/playboy Jep Gambardella vibrates with modern day life and energy.
In fact, it is this set piece that opens the film. Signor Gambardella is observing his 65th birthday and all of Roman high society seems to have turned out to help him celebrate. Although he has only published one novel its near-mythical success has propelled him to the dizzying heights of Roman nightlife over the years and if this party is any indication he shows no sign of stopping.
It takes the recent passing of a long ago sweetheart to make Signor Gambardella slow down and reflect on his life. Like a certain English libertine before him he begins to wonder, “What’s it all about?” anyway. In an effort to find some answers the aging roue begins to revisit old haunts and renew acquaintances with people he has not seen in years.
You can let the images wash over you or peel back the layers and examine what Sorrentino (who wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Umberto Contarello) has to say about aging, mortality, the Catholic Church, politics and the empty life of wealthy upper classes. The film’s dialogue (yes, there are subtitles) ranges from bitingly clever to bittersweet. This is one of those rare films to take on The Journey. Two weeks after viewing it, new insights keep popping into my head when I least expect them and I am still downloading images from the film into my brain.
Italian actor Toni Servillo, who has worked with Signor Sorrentino on his acclaimed Il Divo (2008) and The Consequences of Love (2004) plays the part of Jep Gambardella with sophisticated elan in a role that requires him to go from gloriously hedonistic to melancholy and – yes – poignant.
If one accepts (and I do) that this film is a work of art then it is open to various interpretations (and judging from the reviews I have read there are numerous takes on the subject matter.) It is up to the individual viewer to make his own judgement call. As in Fellini’s best films, no interpretation is really wrong, no matter how facile or complex.
In fact, I’ll leave it up to Signor Servillo to have the last word (and his own interpretation ): “The ‘great beauty’ is the metaphor of a country which is constantly losing opportunities, while Rome with its beauty, bears witness to the fact that once upon a time someone took those opportunities.”