Friday, November 15, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "The Great Beauty"

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Runtime: 142 minutes

The spirit of Federico Fellini lives on in Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, a big, bloated, beautiful swoon of a movie. Italy's official entry for the upcoming Foreign Language Film Oscar may not quite reach the heights of its obvious forerunner - Fellini's La Dolce Vita - but it's still an engaging watch from its dazzling opening to its contemplative final passages. Sorrentino's kaleidoscopic look at Berlusconi-era Rome can be something of a mess, but it's all practically bursting at the seams with life. 

Like the aforementioned Fellini classic, the center of The Great Beauty is a journalist, albeit one significantly older than the one embodied by Marcello Mastroianni all those years ago. Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, excellent here and in Sorrentino's Il Divo) is an aging journalist who conquered Rome's high life at an early age. He's introduced to us during an elaborate party sequence, turning around and grinning with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Yet all of those years a living the sweet life have left a bit of a sour taste in Jep's mouth, even as he continues to indulge. 

Rather than gradually push Jep to a breaking point, however, The Great Beauty is content to wash over the viewer in a series of episodes that often touch on the same themes and ideas. When it works - which it does a great deal of the time - it's grandiose entertainment powered by Sorrentino's full throttle maximalism. The results can sometimes be a bit manic (the camera is in almost constant motion), but they capture the mix of the beautiful and the profane inherent in both Jep's life and Rome itself. 

Though The Great Beauty is a lot of pure movie to take in one sitting, it's never less than pleasurable. Sorrentino captures moments of biting satire and honest, understated emotion with a mix of bombast and restraint. It shouldn't work, but alas, it does. Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi capture it all with relentless enthusiasm. A few bits and pieces here and there break the overall flow, but there's hardly a moment in this sprawling party that begs to be removed or trimmed down. 

Even with the indulgences, it's hard to deny Sorrentino's energetic dedication to his own vast, overwhelming feast for the senses. Despite all of the artistic flourishes, the script is no slouch. If La Dolce Vita showed the hollowness of high society in its heyday, The Great Beauty catches it in its decline. Jep and his associates aren't pretty young things anymore. They have a lifetime of mistakes and regrets behind them, and they're bearing witness to the offspring of their own indulgences. In a particularly humorous aside, Jep watches a group of people visit an outrageously expensive, yet frighteningly efficient, cosmetic surgeon, doing his best to puff and plump Rome's crumbling, sagging glitterati of yesteryear. Later, Jep and a new lady friend walk through a dark empty building filled with statues, gazing upon the immortal works of their ancestors. It's big juxtapositions like this that give The Great Beauty some sense of heft amid its shameless stylization. 

And even though his emotional journey can, at times, feel a touch repetitive, Toni Servillo remains an ideal match for Sorrentino's larger than life aesthetic. The swooping, gliding camera impresses, and the soundtrack choices are divine, but Servillo lends the film its cigar smoke-stained soul. In some ways, Jep is the singular manifestation of his era, despite the group of contemporaries who fill out the ensemble as his friends and lovers. Jep is capable of recognizing the beauty of simple pleasures, but unlike some of his friends, the pull of Rome's high life is too much for him to resist, even as it gets in the way of his more intellectual pursuits. Sensation is key in this thrillingly alive spectacle, but nothing is as truly captivating as a glimpse at the soul. With The Great Beauty, Sorrentino has found a way to stimulate our senses while also providing a successful character study. It's not the sweet life. It's the complete life.  

Grade: A-

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