Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

Film fans like you probably know that, earlier this year, an Italian film won the Golden Globe and Oscar for best foreign film.  Even though I had not yet seen La Grande Bellezza at the time of either awards show, I was pulling hard for it.  It had been on my mind for almost a year.

Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza was the talk of the town last year in Rome, and I really wanted to see it.  The film is set in Roma and it was reportedly shot beautifully.  There was a ton of buzz about the way that Sorrentino depicts Rome and a particular part of Roman society: the well-heeled and indulgent upper class that parties constantly and revels in its nihilism and narcissism -- in other words, the precise social set in which I ran during 2013.  (Not really!)  But everyone was talking about it, several friends told me I should see it, and I desperately wanted to do so.  Alas, La Grande Bellezza was never playing in Roma with subtitles or dubbing in inglese.  I thought I'd struck pay dirt when a good friend in Rome got me the DVD shortly before I left.   But even that was a false alarm, as I could never get the European-formatted DVD to play on my computer or DVD player.  So, I waited.

The Great Beauty is now available in the U.S. on DVDs formatted for our devices.  I've watched it twice.  The experience was moving for me, and so I needed to share with you some of my thoughts and reactions.

For starters, what you've heard is true.  This movie is a visual wonder.  The shots of Rome, including its ruins, are marvelous.  The decadent party scenes and Jeb Gambardella's apartment -- which overlooks the Colosseum -- are stunning.  Jeb's clothing, as well as the attire worn by his friends and cohorts, is unbelievable.  The Great Beauty is an optical feast.  

Something that surprised me, however, was the film's overall existential theme and story line.  To my mind, one thing shared by most Italian movies that have become hits here over the past few decades is that they have been relatively linear, light-hearted, and literal.  They are great movies that I unqualifiedly love, but they are easy to watch.  Think of Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino, and Life Is Beautiful.  (OK, the subject of La Vita e Bella (Life Is Beautiful) is not exactly light.  But the story is direct and linear and in no way opaque.)  La Grande Bellezza is not like that.  The main character Jeb Gambardella, who is played marvelously by Toni Servillo, has just turned 65.  He is undergoing an existential crisis, where he questions the life of decadence and debauchery he has led for the past 30 or 40 years as the doyen of Rome's partying socialite class.  The film is, almost from start to finish, far from an easy watch.  So, if you expect a light and literal story that is simple to follow and digest, you will be disappointed.

In terms of influences, I also had a couple of reactions.  Given its grand sweep and its focus on Rome's night-life and visual splendor, many critics compare La Grande Bellezza to Fellini's La Dolce Vita.  I can see that.  It's hard not to.  But I actually thought more of another Fellini classic.  Because they both have an unforgettable protagonist who is a creative type suffering through a crisis of doubt and reflection, I heard echoes of 8-1/2 in La Grande Bellezza.  Either way, strains of Fellini clearly run through Sorrentino's masterpiece.

What I did not expect was to feel reminders of my favorite American film of the past 5 or 10 years.  I simply loved Terrance Malick's Tree of Life from 2011.  Although the movies on many levels seem miles apart, a couple of aspects from The Great Beauty totally made me think of Tree of Life.  As discussed, Sorrentino's movie is a feast for the eyes.  And what he and his cinematographer do for the eyes in The Great Beauty, Malick and his cinematographer do in Tree of Life.  It's true that 1950s rural Texas is not usually thought to be as beautiful as Rome, but check out these films and see what you think.  I believe they share a lyrical cinematography that serves their common theme about a grand search for meaning in life.  The similarities, moreover, were not merely visual and thematic.  Music too.    When we are not spending time listening to the thumping beats of the music played at Jeb's all-night parties, La Grande Bellezza's score contains more classical and spiritual pieces that soar.  These too brought Tree of Life to mind.

I cannot finish my review without a few more comments on Jeb.  I might now have a new all-time favorite movie character.  Gambardella is glib and sarcastic.  He is nonchalant and brilliant.  He is biting.  When watching him and listening to him, one legendary film character kept coming to mind: Rick Blaine.  If La Grande Bellezza were an American film made in the 1940s, Humphrey Bogart would have played Jeb Gambardella.  But Toni Servillo more than holds his own.

Finally, it's true that I had to watch The Great Beauty twice to really love it.  By adjusting your expectations a little, maybe this review will help you love it even on a first viewing.  In the end, I found it surreal.  This is partly because it brought me home to my favorite city, and made me long for its look, feel, and spirit -- as well as its people.  That said, one huge question lingers: where was this Roma when I spent 9 months there?  How did I miss this?????