Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

"The Haggard, Inconstant Splashes of Beauty"

The Great Beauty won this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I haven't seen the other nominees, but the selection of this one seems like a slam-dunk. A long reverie of a writer, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, a frequent collaborator of the writer-director), who had great success early in his life with his first novel and then stopped. Not writing a follow-up, he becomes a journalist and social critic, judging rather than being judged. And on his 65th birthday, highlighted by an extravagant party, he begins to turn his gaze inward and outward simultaneously and considering his city of Rome, and his place inside (and apart from) it.

Written by Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello, and directed (rapturously) by Sorrentino, it is a tribute to and reflection on the early work of Federico Fellini, combining the flare and satire of La Dolce Vita and the introspection found in Fellini's later nostalgic films. It is (as per The Maestro) populated by grotesques and beauties and finds value in all, and moves, despite occasional forays into debauchery and the facile, into contemplation and grace. It's an irreverent reverie, and it contains some of the most stunning images I've seen in a (new) film for a long, long time.
Servillo as Gambardella
The movie begins with a quote from Celine: "To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength." A bit melancholy, that. But apt, as Gambardella wanders throughout Rome—the neon-lit party-places and crumbling ruins—amid old friends, mere hangers-on, and new acquaintances, while haunted by memories of his first love (whom he has just been informed, by her husband, has died). Maybe it's that conversation that kicks away his facile observations of the bizarre (like a performance artist he interviews, unsure of her concepts, probably because she's taken so many blows to the head running into concrete walls) and spurs his deep thoughts and sudden introspection.
The past comes back to haunt him. The present is a constant attempt to keep himself engaged. A self-imposed victim of his early success, he is skating through life, coasting on his previous accomplishments, caroming (at an ambling pace) with the strata of friends, lovers, and acquaintances lining his path, glancing off them, but not committing. He's thinking, but feeling very little, except for that time in his youth when he was in love—a tangible memory, the rest a blur. 
Sounds like a drag, right? But, it's wonderful—meandering, but beautiful—aided immeasurably by the sad, smart, open performance of Servillo, who is in the film constantly, carrying the thing by himself, and has one of those faces that, try as he might to underplay, exposes every thought passing through his mind.  And his cool, appraising looks at the beauties of Rome, and its follies, might well be his own reflection in a mirror of his self-appraisal. Later in the film, after disappointments and passings, brief encounters and longing flashbacks, the film considers and contrasts an ancient nun, saint-like and constant, in a lifetime of dedication without seeking reward, the seeming opposite of Servillo's life, and finds in her crone-like appearance a beauty that runs deeper than appearances.
It might not be for everyone. There's not a lot of action going on. But the images that are there, stately and gorgeous—sometimes puzzling and mystical—make it head and shoulders above what has become standard movie fare. It expands the mind and offers a lovely tonic to a sense of cynicism that pervades most cinema these days. Both in its subject and its presentation it offers something rare in the movies—hope.

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