Italy’s ‘Eternal City’ has long found itself the focus of cinema’s expressive lens, with Rome often proving the life-blood of films set there by masters including Rossellini, De Sica and Fellini. New to DVD and Blu-ray, The Great Beauty (2013) sees Paolo Sorrentino return to the Italian capital after a sojourn in Ireland and the USA, the city itself taking up a starring role in more ways than one. Not only does it provide the stunning scenery to this satirical carnival, but also plays the part of the film’s protagonist, anthropomorphically inhabited by the wonderfully weathered face of Sorrentino’s regular muse, the wonderful Toni Servillo.
Jep Gambardella (Servillo) is in his mid-sixties, a man of words that long ago turned his back on literature after a single promising novel in his twenties. He’s spent his career as a journalist but has more tellingly been seduced by the decadent life of the Rome’s social elite, and in turn become the body around which it orbits. We begin at his outrageous birthday party, but Jep’s indulgent reverie is interrupted when he receives some sad news. As a result, Jep begins to reflect on a life possibly wasted, and on an apparently unsuccessful lifelong search for the eponymous intangible. What follows are less a series of vignettes than a sequence of passeggiate; evening strolls punctuated by a number of frivolous all-night soirées.
It’s difficult to discuss The Great Beauty without reflecting also on Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita (1960) which runs through the veins of Sorrentino’s latest. Jep bears a remarkable resemblance to that film’s lead, Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) – another writer rejecting his craft and on a search; for “the sweet life”. Both Marcello and Jep also act as projections of the city itself. Fellini’s protagonist was seduced by hedonism just as post-war Rome was. Jep, on the other hand, reminisces over the beauty and prestige lost amongst his youth – the reputations of both he and the city arguably corroded by the Berlusconi era’s bunga bunga excess. Sorrentino’s visuals are always bold and here Luca Bigazzi’s roaming camera accentuates both the vulgarity of the nightlife, and the undeniable elegance of the surroundings.
In an unconnected opening scene, the audience is introduced to Rome by way of a tourist who either passes out, or passes on, as a result of the overwhelming vista. It is perfectly judged that the action then leaps directly into the middle of the vivaciously shot fervour of Jep’s birthday. Centred by Servillo’s wrinkled smile, the only snag that some viewers may find with The Great Beauty is the lack of a driving plot. As a eulogy to Rome’s former glory, it doesn’t require one but there are sections that may feel directionless to some. To others, this will only help enrich the experience of Sorrentino’s immaculate work; a captivating wander through the monuments and ruins of Gambardella.
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