Il Divo and This Must Be the Place director Paolo Sorrentino returns to Italian cinema (with a capital ‘I’ and a capital ‘C’) courtesy of The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza, 2013), a visual tour-de-force that strives to fulfil its own title. Long-time Sorrentino collaborator Tony Servillo stars as the film’s protagonist Jep Gambardella: an ageing ‘King of La Dolce Vita’, a man who has written a novel in his youth but has spent the rest of his life in dissipation and distraction. Jep’s opening birthday party is an exuberant, invigorating sequence, as Sorrentino weaves music and sweeping saturnalian images together with glee.
It’s a virtuoso piece of filmmaking which will have Baz Luhrmann hanging up his glad rags in despair. However, birthdays are as much a moment for reflection as they are for celebration, and the elegant partygoer soon finds himself increasingly gripped by ennui and melancholy. Despite his gorgeous Rome apartment – with its view of the coliseum – and his many beautiful things, Jep is disturbed by memories and dreams from the past, and this is only deepened when he learns of the death of his first girlfriend, who – Gambardella discovers – always loved him.
Jep’s job as an occasional journalist allows him the opportunity to meander through the world of performance art, taking in many striking but occasionally ridiculous experiments: a naked woman who head-butts a wall, or a young child who makes action paintings whilst weeping desperately (to the applause of the crowd including her pushy parents). There is witty gossip; there are more parties; there are the women in who’s company Jep occasionally seeks solace. Fellini is the ghost at the banquet here, but whereas 1960’s classic La Dolce Vita exposed decadence, Sorrentino is late to the feast and finds himself simply bemoaning the fact that excess isn’t quite what it used to be.
Sorrentino swings from savaging the Bunga-Bunga-zization of Italy to a nostalgic yearning for it. He also doesn’t shy away from enforcing some of the worst cultural stereotypes of Italy – because frankly, as someone who has lived in Italy for fourteen years, it deserves it. One could argue the criticism is compromised by the film’s proximity to the subject. The film is financed by Silvio Berlusconi’s Medusa Films, many cameos are real-life participants in the high life of the film, and the end titles have a long list of thanks to the likes of Armani, etc.
The problem with The Great Beauty is not its attitude to dissipation, but dissipation itself. The story lags as Sorrentino makes magical moments more for the sake of the magic than the story. The film’s greatest strengths – Sorrentino’s visual aplomb and Servillo’s pitch perfect performance – end up encumbering the story. As the portrait of a novelist who hasn’t written a novel in years, Sorrentino’s latest becomes a great, unapproachable beauty, itself having sadly lost the plot.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.