Just when I thought I saw all the movies I had to see for this year’s Oscar season, I learned The Great Beauty is around for a limited time. Now it wasn’t a serious Best Picture contender but it is a favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Picture category.
The film begins with Jep Gambardella having his 65th birthday party. Jep started his fame by writing a novel only to turn to writing cultural columns and becoming a top socialite in Rome since. He has been a popular fixture in all of Rome with holding the most expensive and most debaucherous parties on his apartment overlooking the Coliseum. The birthday party he has is well-attended and well-celebrated however Jep feels a sense of unfulfillment. The sense of unfulfillment continues after he meets face-to-face with a performance artist he’s about to pan, only for her to tell him off. It continues even further when he meets up with the man who married his first love from back in the early-70’s. He reveals to Jep she just died and she always loved him.
It’s then Jep decides to take a break from the party scene and retreat into a trip of knowledge. He takes in aspects of life in the many places he goes to: weddings, funerals, magic shows, visiting relics of Ancient Rome and the Renaissance, and even viewing the wreck of the Costa Concordia. He discovers from others about their passions and why it matters to them, even if they don’t become rich and famous from it. He visits artworks and learns from them and their lives. He meets with one friend who does a disappearing act with a giraffe. He witnesses the daughter of a rich friend of his paint out her frustration and anger with an abstract painting on a huge canvas. He meets a man whose father took a picture of him every day of his life and has the pictures plastered around a Roman palace. He even meets a 104 year-old nun who has cared for the sick throughout her life and still holds the same amount of faith.
However life does take some changes along the way. He does come into conflict with some of his rich friends when he questions their lives. He gets involved with friction with his mentally-ill son to the point his son commits suicide. His artistic friend decides to leave Rome after 40 years because the inspiration is no longer there. He never learns about why his first love left him as her husband threw away her memoirs.
The film is a very deep film as it reflects on a man who ‘made it’ and cashed out into the world of socializing and column-writing. It focuses on his reflecting on what could’ve been for him. The constant question from others on why he hasn’t written his second book adds to that lingering feel. The memories of him with his first love adds to the wonder of what could have been. Often when he sees the passions of others–whether it be a rich girl painting out her anger, a friend doing a magic trick, or even an elderly nun making every effort to live out her faith– he gets a sense of why people live out their passions. It’s a common theme in which many people feel once they look back on their lives often with regret and that lingering question of ‘what if.’
Paolo Sorrentino did an excellent job of directing and co-writing this original script with Umberto Contarello. I’m not too familiar with Sorrentino’s works but I know that he has a good resume for a young director. Three of his films have been entered into the Cannes Film Festival and two have been nominated for the Palme d’Or including this one, which lost to Blue Is The Warmest Color. He has even done an English-language film with Sean Penn entitled This Must Be The Place. His next productions as Rio, I Love You which is a continuation of the I Love You series of movies and In The Future which is slated to star Michael Caine.
Toni Servillo did an excellent job playing Jep in all of his dimensions. You could really sense the feelings inside of Jep that Tony embodied excellently. The supporting acting was also excellent, especially from Carlo Verdone as Romano and Sabrina Ferilli as Ramona. There were also great performances of significance and scene stealing from Giovanna Vignola as the secretary with Dwarfism and Giusi Merli as the elderly nun still full of spiritual passion. There were other great qualities to the film including excellent cinematography featuring the best of Rome and all of Italy. Another addition to the film was the mix of music from modern to classical. The classical pieces really stood out as they presented many scenes best and added to the theme of the film.
I have to say The Great Beauty adds to the greatness of Italian film that has been prevalent in past years. I know how Italian film really came to the attention with directors like Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini coming to exposure many decades ago. Italian film seemed to be continuing towards greatness and influence in recent classic films like Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino and Life Is Beautiful. However it took a bit of a back seat in the past ten years as there hasn’t been a film or director in that time that dazzled the world by storm. Paolo Sorrentino and The Great Beauty looks to change that. Many critics have said it resembles many great Italian films of the past. It has won many awards in film festivals and even beat out Blue Is The Warmest Color for wins at the European Film Awards and the Golden Globes. It looks to be a heavy favorite for the Oscar as there doesn’t seem to be any other film to challenge. Even if there was, it would still rank as one of the top films of the year.
The Great Beauty is an excellent cinematic reflection of an aging socialite. Its deep story set against thematic scenes and beautiful cinematography makes it one worth seeing.