Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film is both a sumptuous celebration of Rome and a far-reaching satire of the lazy, self-righteous mentality that has infected the self-appointed mid-to-upper tiers of Italian society. The central performance by Sorrentino’s long-time collaborator Toni Servillo is masterful. He balances dry humour and biting cynicism while retaining the ability to move the audience with the subtlest of facial expressions. Really this alone is worth the price of the ticket, but the film offers so much more.
The Great Beauty is a series of magnificent set-pieces, perfectly composed as characters wander empty streets at night, party on picturesque rooftops and, in a particularly magical sequence, access the city’s most beautiful buildings in the early hours of the morning with a mysterious man carrying a suitcase full of keys. Even mundane scenes in apartments or in the less inherently attractive setting of a strip-club are shot with meticulous precision that you don’t always encounter on the screen. Unsurprisingly, Luca Bigazzi, the Director of Photography, won Best Cinematography at the Italian Golden Globe Awards and the Nastri D’Argento this year.
Following a short opening section that is best left a surprise, the film explosively cuts to the sixty-fifth birthday party of the protagonist, a journalist and self-proclaimed King of Socialites named Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). His guests are the elite of Rome: an eclectic, grotesque assortment of the young, beautiful, old, ugly, famous, and aspirant–dancing with a shameless, frantic energy. As the film progresses, structured episodically around Jep’s encounters and experiences, the excitement of the opening sequence is shown to be a façade behind which there are corrupt cardinals, exploitative parents, aristocrats for hire, ludicrously pretentious artists and blindly ego-centric millionaires. This is Sorrentino’s satire of Italy, if you can call it that. Excluding the film’s occasional slip into surrealism, some Italians might just call it a ‘snapshot’. Far from being a simplistic portrayal of immorality and egotism, the film is a subtle examination of false appearances and the self-deception that results in the stale inactivity that characterises Italy’s current decline.
In one scene, Stefania (Galatea Ranzi) lectures a small group of friends about the sacrifices she has made as a mother and her virtuous attempts to remain innovative as a writer, unlike most others. Jep, to whom this criticism is chiefly aimed, brutally exposes her as a hypocrite. Stefania responds angrily, but more importantly she appears shocked as though it were a revelation. Certain aspects of the film will have more specific resonances for Italian audiences; a shadowy, marginal character turns out to be a criminal on the most wanted list whose surname is Moneta, alluding to Matteo Denaro, one of the leaders of the Cosa Nostra. But even viewers without any knowledge of Italian culture will understand its themes.
The soundtrack is a brilliantly effective fusion of minimalist classical music, modern disco and house that perfectly encapsulates the contradictions Sorrentino exposes throughout the film. The atmospheric, ecclesiastical sounds of contemporary composers such as Arvö Part and John Tavener jarringly cut to Yolanda’s “We No Speak Americano” and Bob Sinclar’s 2011 Ibiza hit “Far l’amore” as the film moves from the decadent, stale interiors of wealthy, sometimes aristocratic households to the lascivious, frenetic party sequences. But even dancing ceases to be the hedonistic outlet it seems initially. The third party of the film looks almost identical to the first, and the hollowness of these night-time pursuits is subtly implied as Jep laughingly says that the dance trains (a conga line without the kick) that take place at these parties in Rome are the best in the world. Why? Because they don’t go anywhere.
Without giving anything away, the final section of the film features a century-old nun whose hard work has earned her the nickname of ‘La Santa’. She visits Rome at the behest of the Pope, but she is a fan of Jep’s only novel written in his youth, so he is asked to host a dinner party for her. His encounter with ‘La Santa’ and the compelling counter-example represented by her acetic lifestyle leads the film to its enigmatic and poetic resolution. Is the ending awkwardly Christian? Or, far from it, having already lampooned all that, does Sorrentino present an optimistic philosophy of determination and sacrifice that transcends the nun’s religion? It’s beautiful, it’s funny, it’s clever, it’s relevant and you’ll probably leave wanting to see it again.
PHOTOS// waytooindie, totalfilm, timeout