Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” deserves nothing less than the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is exquisitely camp, bold, and artistic, with beautiful cinematography. “The Great Beauty” explores beauty, death, self-discovery, and the human condition for the lavish socialites in the city of Rome. Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is the case study of modern day ennui as he searches for meaning, or the great beauty, in his life after reaching his sixty-fifth birthday. With an intelligent and poetic script, Gambardella enchants audiences with his debonair attitude and his ability to grow as a character. A beautiful film throughout, “The Great Beauty” captures the essence of the elite lifestyle by exploring the attitudes of the hard-drinking, partying, disillusioned inhabitants of Rome.
“To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain”
The film opens with a quote from Celine’s “Journey to the End of the Night”, instigating assumptions that the film will take up ideas of travel, imagination, and illusions of life. The quote speaks to Jep’s roots and lack of mobility outside of Rome, and its impact on his imaginative spark, or lack thereof. Jep is a famous one-hit-wonder novelist who claims he has never written another novel due to lack of “great beauty” in his life. Jep himself, identifies that writing requires peace and quiet, and he cannot write in Rome because there are too many distractions.
Jep is entirely carefree until he is confronted with both his age and some bad news relating to his past as an egregious bachelor. This shock turns Jep inward, analysing his life, vocations, and social circles. The film follows Jep as he takes stock of his life and values, with many contrasts between the life Jep prized and the insecurities he comes to know. The journey guides Jep to befriend a 104 year old female Saint and Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a forty-something year old stripper who believes she was never “cut out for beautiful things.” Throughout the film, Jep befriends many and loses some either to death or migration, reinforcing the fragility of human life and adding to the strain of Jep’s search for meaning.
In all facets of his life, Jep is routinely confronted with discussions of “life vocations,” and the meaning of one’s life if one does not have anything to “put out into the world.” As the result of an internal debate, Jep asks a female friend what she does for a job and she responds with “I’m rich”, reinforcing that “real world” values are irrelevant in the lifestyle to which Jep is accustomed. Even in an in-depth existential debate with his social circle, Jep comes to believe that life obtains meaning through what one puts out into the world, thus causing him to strain over his lack of novel creativity. This rings true for Jep when he visits an art exhibit of a middle-aged man who has taken a photograph of himself every day since he was fourteen. The physical evidence of the artist’s life work leaves Jep speechless, and the film beautifully captures that.
“Pure couture cinema…a glitteringly hypnotic film”
The film’s crowning achievement is its artistry. The soundtrack is brilliant; the use of mastering and sound editing wonderfully complement the classical and modern music. As well, the use of colour in the film to emphasize the couture fashion and high-end life styles is very well-done. Sorrentino chooses to aid significant themes or morals of a moment with cut scenes that appear bizarre or even uncomfortable. An example of this is the beginning of the film where the energy and atmosphere of Jep’s world is presented two-fold: the historical “touristy” side of Rome, and Jep’s Rome. Before Jep is even introduced, the camera closes in on a woman’s face as she is screaming, the camera then pans out to demonstrate that she is at Jep’s birthday party. The stark contrast between historical, rich Rome, and obscene fanciful Rome is very blunt, especially as Jep begins to identify and internalize that divide.
The development of Jep’s character is attributed to Sorrentino’s masterful screenplay and direction. Despite coming from a world much unknown to the average viewer, it becomes easy to relate with Jep as he begins to contemplate what it means to have had a successful life and what ‘beauty’ really is. “The Great Beauty” is, itself, a beautiful cinematic creation that viewers of any age can appreciate.