The Great Beauty: a Best Foreign Film Oscar Nominee from Italy. A worthy consideration and maybe the only one (of five) nominees in this category that has screened in Honolulu. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, this 142 minute movie opens with an elaborate 65th birthday party for the central character, Jep Gambardella, shot on an outdoor terrace full of “beautiful people” juxtaposed with a view of the Colosseum. These scenes reoccur as part of an elaborate metaphor to describe a changing society and country. I usually let a movie rumble around for a time before reviewing. Sometimes, after further contemplation I develop a growing respect for the work, beyond my initial reaction. This is one of those movies. The more you think about it, the more you realize that this portrait of a life is the director’s commentary on his country gone adrift. Toni Servillo plays Jep, a wealthy socialite who, at the age of 26, authored a singular award winning novel and is now a journalist. Someone asks why Jep hasn’t followed with a second piece. We learn that his ambition is to become “king of the high life”. His opening narration begins,”I didn’t just want to go to parties… I wanted the power to make them a failure.”
The movie is beautiful. Beautiful paintings and statues, and beautiful people lacking substance. My initial reaction was that the film dragged on. However in retrospect, I realize that what Sorrentino has offered as a tale of love and work, is also a commentary on what is lost when you are obsessed with self gratification of desire and pleasures. I think this is where religion intersects with a culture resigned to not meeting its potential, just as Jep fails his potential as a novelist.
I think the more you know about Italy and the Catholic faith, the more you will appreciate this film. What is remarkable is that politics are never discussed. Most scenes capture the lives of the wealthy, while the social reality is always present. Though translated to English, I know that not speaking Italian is another reason, along with not being Catholic, that there is more to this film than I am equipped to comprehend.
Jep is a vehicle by which to comment on modern Italian life. Sorrentino’s messages are expansive. There is a scene where Jep views the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, that ran aground off the Tuscan coast. It is a visual statement that requires no words and none are uttered, as Jep looks down on the wreck. We’re left with a powerful visual and an even more powerful message that Sorrentino leaves with the viewer. He may be the present day Federico Fellini of Italian cinema.