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The Great Beauty

October 26, 2013

The Great Beauty (2013)
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Actors: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli

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Synopsis: A top Roman socialite, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), has a series of experiences around the time of his 65th birthday that cause him to reflect back on his life.

Review: The great Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once made a gorgeous film inspired by the sights of his self-imposed exile in Italy entitled Nostalgia, and that would be a befitting tagline for this film, which so movingly portrays the subtle melancholy in an ageing Roman playboy. Far from the caustic tones of dissolution and regret that some misinformed commentators have taken the film’s ethos/moral to be, I think The Great Beauty is far more complex and subtle than that one-note reading of the film would indicate. If anything, I take the film’s thesis to be more about opulence and an essay on how Rome has sated the aesthete sensibility of the main character Jep Gambardella (incidentally, a marvellous portrayal by Toni Servillo as this Roman journalist and socialite).

In a sense, Rome – being the ultimate, ancient historic city that it is (at least in Western eyes) – is an all-encompassing metaphor for death, and we see this sentiment appear more than once. There’s a playful opening coda where a Japanese tourist collapses while gorging on the Roman sights, and the film’s trajectory charts Jep’s numerous encounters with mortality (the symbolic, magical female idol of his youth has just died, the tortured son of a friend has just committed suicide, and the promise of a new girlfriend-cum-companion quietly fades away when she passes away mysteriously due to a presumed drug addiction). Jep once wrote a great novel in his twenties, but again the film doesn’t lament this waste – seeming to indicate Jep had no need to go coruscating his soul for further works of art, when he was living luxuriously among them for the majority of his life. The one character who does attempt to rail against the decadence of it all (the female pseudo-communist) gets shot down, and Sorrentino in his closing montage of an ageing saintly Sister climbing the Scala Sancta versus Jep going to the coastal lighthouse of his magical teenage tryst, doesn’t suggest any pejorative difference between either gesture – they’re both sacred acts of worship. (October 2013)

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