Home Video Hovel: The Great Beauty, by David Bax
When I saw Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty a few months ago, I was reminded like everyone else of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Both are films about Rome’s high society, after all. But rewatching it on Criterion’s new Blu-ray, I couldn’t help but think of a film that was released in the interim, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Both are films about elegant, older men coming to terms with the fact that their way of life may no longer be tenable in the world. And both are presented as visual feasts. Yet where Anderson’s film is typically airless, Sorrentino’s is positively bursting with life.
Toni Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, a rich member of the upper crust who wrote a single novel in his twenties and now spends his time going to parties and penning the occasional magazine piece on art. Shortly after his 65th birthday, he tells himself there will be “no more wasting time” on things he doesn’t want to do. That’s less the premise of the movie than an invitation from Sorrentino to wonder just how long it’s been since Jep and his friends have ever had to do anything they didn’t want to.
Perhaps that description makes Jep seem like a naïve or ignorant wastrel. But it’s integral to The Great Beauty that we understand and sympathize with him. Lucky for us, we have Servillo. He makes Jep a warm and funny individual, capable of great kindness and softness toward those he cares about. Anyone else, however, is at constant risk of suffering his devastating, acidic insights, delivered not only with boundless candor but with the same gentle charm as his compliments. A scene in which he takes a woman in his social circle to task for, basically, how she has lived the entirety of her adult life is staggering in its writing and performance and as hilarious as it is hateful.
Sorrentino’s Rome is brilliant with color. Every location is well-appointed and every shot meticulously composed with an eye for symmetry. Yet these images are not dioramas or paintings on a wall. The camera glides through them, teetering or swerving, taking it all in like a living thing. It’s not the camera that’s alive, though. It’s the city.
We are guided through an endless series of large parties and small gatherings but also through nearly outlandish things like a Botox doctor treated like a temperamental rock star. Sorrentino’s jibes at the moneyed class are in some ways similar to Woody Allen’s, especially when he takes on the pretentious art world. But, like Jep, he can be much more harsh and cutting than Allen. The vapid performance artist interviewed and mocked by Jep is not some vague stand-in for an artistic subset. It’s clearly a representation of Marina Abramovic herself.
One of the other exhibits visited by Jep has a far deeper effect on him. An artist has had his picture taken – first by his father and then by himself – every single day of his life. Now he has displayed them. Jep walks among the photographs, face to face with the passage of time. He is getting older but his way of life is stagnant. It’s no surprise that when Jep begins a fulfilling relationship with a woman, she is not only younger than he but is also from the middle class, where people are still affected by the world. Meanwhile, the universe he inhabits is rotting, but beautifully.
Special features include deleted scenes, interviews with the director, the star and the co-screenwriter as well as a booklet and essay.