Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Great Beauty

Anyone who’s seen La Dolce Vita – a film that will inevitably be brought up in any discussion of Paolo Sorrentino’s new film The Great Beauty -may remember a group of young aristocrats whose decadent parties we bear witness to in the final few scenes. These rich Roman residents seemed to while away all their waking hours in a perpetual state of vacuous partying, as if they had to keep quiet the gnawing concern of the hollowness of their existence, that threatens to surface should they ever give their minds time to reflect.

In some respects, The Great Beauty resembles a sequel to Fellini’s classic, in which all the privileged revellers have grown and are now facing the wrong side of forty, yet continue to party with as much relentlessness as their youthful selves. Once more contemporary Rome provides the backdrop, but this soundtrack of their raves features dubstep and dance music rather than jazz and rock n roll. 

One of these characters, named Jep Gambardella (played with cynical charm and a degree of pathos by Sorrentino favourite Toni Servillo), forms the centre of the film, from which one dazzling set piece after another and a series of compelling, tangential scenes revolve around. In his old age, Jep finally begins to question his hedonistic existence, when a stranger reveals to him that his recently deceased wife had in fact been in love with Jep her whole life. Startled by the revelation, Jep ponders over his past, and the regrets of his love life and career as a writer. 

Sorrentino sees to it that we have as much fun watching the film as those in it, with some of the most sumptuous filmmaking you’ll find in the cinema. The Great Beauty is not structured around a plot that travels from A to B, but features instead a series of loosely related vignettes that provide the director the platform from which to display his marvellous set pieces. In one, a cabaret act throws paint-drenched knives around his model as a uniquely dramatic process of creating a work of art; in another, a 100-year-old nun climbs a church staircase on her hands and knees; in another, in fact in the very first scene, a Japanese tourist startlingly collapses taking in the wondrous Roman scenery. 

Just like La Dolce Vita, on one hand the film condemns the characters’ depraved lifestyles, but on the other it revels in and celebrates the sensuality of their world, reflecting its seductiveness with the equally appealing manner in which Sorrentino shoots the film. But all these comparisons to Fellini aren’t to say that Sorrentino’s style is a carbon copy of his legendary compatriot; Sorrentino possess his own distinct aesthetic, full of movement, rapid cutting and audacious that marks his out clearly as an auteur of our times. 

The gorgeousness and technical wizardry of The Great Beauty is beyond doubt, and there’s plenty of witty dialogue to inject life in the more downbeat scenes. But whether the film holds together entirely satisfactorily is questionable. There’s an excess of poetic images and the majority of conversations include a handful of profound-sounding witticisms, but whether it all amounts to more than a repetitive speculation concerning the anxiety of growing old requires the closer scrutiny of a second watch. But lovers of the sensory pleasures of cinema will care little for the possible hollowness of the film’s content, when the surface gleams as brightly as this.


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