Reviews - The Great Beauty
The Great Beauty
Reviewed By John Porter
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is an aging socialite, and although he once wrote a novel which is still remembered in intellectual circles, he now carelessly throws his time around journalism, partying and day-dreaming. We enter Jep's world with a flurry of colour and decadence: Dancing, fashion, money, and Rome, all covered in a gloss of exhibitionism. A lavish party for our protagonist's sixty fifth birthday is in full swing on a minimalist rooftop terrace, thoroughly modern, yet a stone's throw from the Coliseum, the pinnacle of ancient entertainment and moral contradictions. This is Jep’s dance though, and the city is but his stage. Back in the party, the cinematography is fluid and vibrant, swooping over crowds, the camera being upturned, switching to slow-motion, altering perspective again and again, creating a neon tapestry of glitz and hedonism.
A sharpness is evident in the depiction of the ball, both in visual terms with the brightly lit compositions against the night, and aurally in the crystal clearly defined electro soundtrack, and this visceral, definite quality becomes a feature of the ‘celebrations-for-any-occasion’ which occur throughout the movie. As the film progresses however, and Jep's voyage becomes one of disillusionment, this sharpness becomes increasingly indicative of a shallow, soulless reality, undermining the glamour, and exaggerating the back-biting attitudes of the revellers. In one particularly scathing sequence, Jep is ignored by a priest more interested in party games than helping with the emptiness in the former’s heart.
Gambardella's questioning of this life begins with the visit of an old acquaintance whose wife has recently passed away. We learn that in adolescence, this woman was Jep's first love, and that equally, she too had never been able to forget him. Throughout the remainder of the movie as Jep walks the Roman streets watching the architecture and people that define them, details emerge of the brief relationship between the pair, and its pervading influence on Jep’s life. When he lies back in bed he sees a tranquil ocean like the circumstances of their meeting, and as he tells a woman he is dating about his 'first time', he is unable to finish the story, his stare drifting past the camera into a deep nostalgia.
This preoccupation with the setting of the tale, and a character searching for truths gives a strong impression of a journey, albeit, languid and weaving, and through the wryly observing stance of our protagonist, one that we become perpetually involved in. Jep is on the hunt for many things, not least a connection with art, the tool that may be his way of creating a world of sense from the milieu around him. “Flaubert wanted to write a book on nothing”, he remarks, gesturing at the figures that populate his gatherings, before telling us that only he, Jep Gambardella, could achieve such a thing. He contemplates starting to write again, but is unable to find the inspiration in his surroundings. As well as the botoxed people, the art of Rome is also portrayed as flawed and used for affectation, being either shows of bravura, childish tantrums, or as archaically stately and locked up, as if secrets to which the only key is knowing the right people. This is a city of privilege and facades; reality is subjective. "Can you see the sea?" He asks a girl in his bed. She
looks up and sees a blank ceiling where Jep sees turquoise waves. "Yes", she replies. This theme of visual trickery is reinforced during a sequence of a magician vanishing a giraffe, and again as we see a woman playing within an optical illusion of colonnades while dressed in a fairytale-like cape. Yet the nature of these tricks and our knowledge of their fabrication are continually called into question with a series of surreal images, culminating in a flock of flamingos feeding on Jep's balcony while a saint proclaims to know each and every bird by christian name. The great beauty of Italy's capital seems to defy pigeonholing. It is always just out of reach, much like the elusive muse of our main character, and in this respect, thematic comparisons with Fellini’s cinema of the 1960s are obvious and well-founded.
Jep finds it increasingly hard to maintain the lies upon which his acquaintances found their lives, and exposes them in measured put-downs at society gatherings, seemingly more because of a boredom at their pretentious bragging than due to spite. Later he details the procedure of funerals, and defines their importance as one of show and dignity, before being unable to hold back his own tears whilst carrying the coffin. The emptiness of his existence is as clear to him as it is to us, and his grief seems shed less for the mourners than his own state, an act which can only exacerbate itself. This is a man searching for the way out.
Unsurprisingly for movie so concerned with art, Jep's salvation comes upon finding inspiration after so many years of drought, and with it, confronting the only beauty that he knows to be real. The location by the sea, which the audience have only previously seen as a highly romanticised flashback or fantasy, is suddenly tangible and placed within the present day as our writer returns and releases a heartfelt monologue on his rediscovery of a truth that has been beyond his grasp for so long. Although the world of ‘La grande bellezza’ is one of disenchantment and futility, its final redemptive sweep is one of joy, and an optimism that, given time, beauty will survive.
Next Sunday sees history in the making with a screening of ‘Wadjda’ by Saudi Arabia’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, tackling issues of gender and small, personal rebellions against tradition in the Middle East.
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