Federico Fellini. Oh, and La Dolce Vita. There; can I go on with the rest of this review of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty without mentioning either of them every other sentence? …Eh, screw it; I don’t think I could do it. I don’t know what Sorrentino’s intentions were when he set forth to make this film, but if his intentions were to make a modern-day La Dolce Vita in almost every sense of the implication, then he damn well succeeded. I seriously could sum up a review of The Great Beauty in a single sentence; it’s just filling in the rest of the space that is going to be a rather tough escapade. Maybe it will be only a matter of finding what I really need or wanted to say about the film, much like the character arc of this film’s protagonist. Then again, much like the film itself, I might be merely presenting a slew of artfully composed material that, despite being easily worth the time put into it, is still in search of a real and unique and true thing to impart upon the audience.
Toni Servillo is Sorrentino’s leading man once again, a true modern-day Mastroianni (that’s three or four if you’re counting, depending on your separation of references). Here, he is Jep Gambardella, a writer who found success in his early career with his first book but who, instead of cultivating that career, chose to become a columnist in order to immerse himself in the night life, the party life, of Rome. Cue the entrance of the film, where Jep is now 65, and after throwing a huge birthday bash, he finds himself wandering around Rome, contemplating his life and why he finds himself so dissatisfied with it. At a superficial level, this film is as opaque as any of the marble statues and constructions that Rome is famous for; truly, if you want to watch this film for pure entertainment value, then you have been led misguidedly into the wrong picture. Where the film does work is in the technicals, which, with partial thanks to having seen Sorrentino’s earlier film The Consequences of Love, I was expecting to be excellent, and the film did not disappoint; I would wager that this won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film based on the strength of the cinematography alone. The camera is unbelievably mobile, swooping and panning and dollying all over the city of Rome in order to capture that ethereal magnificence that draws so many tourists to the place, and it largely succeeds. The visuals are engrossing, the colors pop when they need to and recede into the background when they don’t, and the editing work had to have been some of the best of the year. Truly, Sorrentino directed the hell out of this. Also, he makes good use of his main actor, though for some reason, I found it harder to imagine Toni Servillo as the self-proclaimed King of the High Life than I did his stoically resigned former mobster in The Consequences of Love. Maybe it was merely because I’d seen the former film first, but it was an annoying lack of absorption into the character that plagued me as I watched this film. Now, here’s the thing; even with the amazing visual extravaganza that was going on, I knew that the film wanted to be more than that, so I began digging deeper and paying further attention to what the film really wanted to be, and when I came out the other side, the credits fading in and out over a lovely tracking shot down one of the canals of Rome, I found myself still wondering. As a visual experience, the film ranks among the best of the modern era, but as an intellectual and moral experience, it could’ve done with a little more substance than what it had.
It was in a small period in the middle of watching the film, where there really wasn’t a whole lot happening, that I spent ruminating about the nature and objective of the film that I think I finally understood what the film was going to ultimately be about: Sorrentino’s goal was to provide the audience with a cautionary tale, one to impart the moral to an audience not to let the life you really should’ve lived pass you by. Now, as to whether or not the film succeeded in its goal, I really can’t say. What I can say, though, is that I found the film to be a bit too meandering in its narrative and direction to really achieve its goal. I don’t know, maybe it did, but for me, it wasn’t a cohesive enough vision to do so. This is a film that wants to make you think and consider it, rather than just have it handed to you, but here’s the thing; I did think about it and consider it, and despite my efforts, I didn’t really find all that much that the film could’ve handed over anyways. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s a poor film; it’s breathtakingly beautiful, impeccably photographed, and well constructed for what it is. I just never got the impression that “what it is” really amounted to very much.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10
Apologies for the lateness in this post; I’ve had arguably the busiest week of my life up until today. Glad I had at least one free period to knock this one out.