La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) – review
A swooning love letter to Roman decadence, La Grande Bellezza is the Paolo Sorrentino's greatest film yet
Thursday 5 September 2013 15.29 BST
aolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza is a compelling tragicomedy of Italy's leisured classes in the tradition of Antonioni's La Notte or Fellini's La Dolce Vita. It is a pure sensual overload of richness and strangeness and sadness, a film sometimes on the point of swooning with dissolute languour, savouring its own ennui like a truffle. But more often it's defiantly rocking out, keeping the party going as the night sky pales, with all the vigour of well-preserved, middle-aged rich people who can do hedonism better than the young. It is set in Rome, populated by the formerly beautiful and the currently damned, and featuring someone who doesn't quite fall into either category.
When I first saw this extraordinary film, I flinched – though admiringly – at the fleshy opulence, and called it a magnificent banquet composed of 78 sweet courses. On a second viewing, it feels more like 84 or 91. Now I see that isn't the point anyway. The sweet course is the most exquisitely sad because it signals the end of the feast.
La Grande Bellezza reunites Sorrentino with his favourite leading man, that uniquely potent stage and screen actor Toni Servillo, who like no other unlocks Sorrentino's fierce, Jonsonian satire. He plays Jep Gambardella: an ageing man-about-town at the centre of Rome's fashionable nightlife, elegant as a vampire. Jep's face is a mask of polite disenchantment, but often creasing into a grin of willed, cultivated pleasure. He is famous for his journalism, and for having written one promising novel in his 20s and nothing else, but more for knowing everyone who matters. The London equivalent might be Nicky Haslam or Taki Theodoracopulos.
In his 60s, Jep is content with his life and about to drift blearily off into mortality's shade when he is electrified by an unexpected event. A stranger presents himself at the door of his bachelor apartment with a revelation that moves Jep profoundly and triggers in him a new passionate connoisseurship of all he has loved, all he has wasted, along with a tiny sense that he might start writing seriously again. The movie is his final Proustian passeggiata.
The grande bellezza, like the grande tristezza, can mean love, or sex, or art, or death, but above all it means Rome, and the city is evoked with staggering flair and attack. Sorrentino's signature swooping and zooming camera discloses scenes and figures and faces. We see a sunny, glorious morning in the city: a Japanese tourist has collapsed, through fatigue, or perhaps some aesthetic overload, a Roman death-epiphany. The director then contrives a thrilling hard cut from this subdued scene to a deafening Eurotrash party thrown for Jep's 65th birthday, pulsing to Sorrentino's favourite glassy electro-pop: a writhing Bosch mass of revellers.
One of Jep's acquaintances is Cardinal Bellucci, tipped to be the next pontiff, hilariously played by 75-year-old Roberto Herlitzka. The cardinal fascinates Jep, and is possessed of an intimate knowledge of Rome's occult secrets, sacred and profane. His character weirdly reminded me of an episode in the life of Pope John Paul II, who as a young Polish priest was encouraged by Krakow's Cardinal Adam Sapieha to study in Rome, specifically to develop his sense of Romanità, the almost untranslatable sense of "Roman-ness". It is not precisely theology, or history or politics, but something encoded in the squares and gardens of Rome that is vital for a potential Pope, or for anyone who wishes to understand the vanity and seductive glory of human wishes.
La Grande Bellezza is steeped in this mysterious Romanità: Jep broods on Mondanità, or fashionable high-life. And that is a remarkably resilient culture, liable to go on without Jep, thanks to the muscular vigour shown by its bronzed and botoxed elders. In 1960, Pauline Kael called this film genre the "come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe party": La Grande Bellezza looks like a "come-dressed-as-the-fantastically-vigorous-and-unrepentant-soul-of-rich-Europe" party. When they dance to a catchy remix of We No Speak Americano, there is no cultural cringe to the US. They are Italians, Romans: they don't need Americans or anyone else.
This is Sorrentino's best film so far, a movie with all the angular caricature and cosmopolitan suavity that marked films such as Il Divo, The Family Friend and The Consequences of Love, but with a new operatic passion and clamour, a sense of love and loss, and an even sharper, more piercing sense of the forms of power and prestige. And for its intense, unbearable melancholy, the final end-title sequence has to be watched through to the very end until the screen goes dark.