As I’ve been living in the States and at the moment haven’t left them for more than a year, I’ve been doing some armchair traveling, reading news and novels but above all through an addiction to foreign film. So I’ve decided to return to one of the forms in which I first published back in high school and college, and write occasional movie reviews for the penguin revolutions.
Federico Fellini would have been 94 on January 20. That happened to be the day I made it to E Street Cinema in Washington to see La grande bellezza or The Great Beauty, which had just been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Paolo Sorrentino’s film is also out on DVD with the Criterion Collection in March, a mark of distinction which first brought the film to my attention. A beautifully shot tribute to Rome and La Dolce Vita, I expected. But the film brilliantly exceeded my expectations and I would call it my favorite of 2013.
Toni Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, a journalist who is king of the social scene and celebrating his 65th birthday with hundreds of his friends in the first of the film’s grand soirées. Looking somewhat like a dapper version of Joe Biden, Jep instead has an incisive tongue which we see cut apart both a confused amateur artist he interviews and a longtime friend alike who pushes her self-regard too far in one of many rooftop cocktail circles. His novel, published decades ago, was a major literary success which he has never followed up. Now, facing mortality between the milestone birthday and news of the death o his first love, he walks out of a beautiful woman’s bed looking beyond the parties for something more. He discovers a potential soulmate in an unlikely place, but fleetingly. Some of his friends pass on from Rome. He encounters a pope-in-waiting who lovingly describes how to cook any dish that comes to his mind, but flees when asked about spiritual matters, and a Mother Teresa character who loved his novel, and seems to be the only one with answers.
There is poetry unbound in the dialogue, the characters are memorable and real even at their most exaggerated, the ensemble acting is excellent, and the beautifully shot world Sorrentino creates offers joy after surreal joy, from a botox clinic which might well (or might as well) have been one of the pieces of performance art Jep reviews for his friend’s magazine to a disappearing giraffe standing among the ruins of Caesar’s city. Sorrentino even weaves the capsized Costa Concordia into the film. La grande bellezza is a movie in which one loses track of time and is sad to see it go at the end. It’s melancholic and in places cutting, as any film about modern Italy rightly should be, but also warm and affectionate. All in all, a masterpiece, and a great beauty.