These are the moments when I am proud to be italian..The new Sorrention’s film an homage to Rome.
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Cannes 2013: The Great Beauty – first look review
Paulo Sorrentino’s magnificent return to form sees him reteam with Toni Servillo for a lush, classical tale of middle-age hedonism and lost love
Paolo Sorrentino has returned to Cannes with a gorgeous movie, the film equivalent of a magnificent banquet composed of 78 sweet courses. It is in the classic high Italian style of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Antonioni’s La Notte: an aria of romantic ennui among those classes with the sophistication and leisure to appreciate it. The grande bellezza, like the grande tristezza, can mean love, or sex, or art, or death, but most of all it here means Rome, and the movie wants to drown itself in Rome’s fathomless depths of history and worldliness.
La Grande Bellezza is a return to Sorrentino’s natural form and cinematic language, after his uneasy English-language picture This Must Be The Place, which starred Sean Penn as a swirly-haired rock star. The director is back in his element, and the opening scenes in Rome are electric. Yearning, swooning, sinuous camera movements bring us into the city one sunny morning; the director’s signature rectilinear compositions and dreamlike zooms, and his disclosure of bizarre and exotic people on every streetcorner, create a city which is at once familiar and utterly alien, as if he had discovered a parallel Rome on another planet.
A tourist faints, perhaps with heat, or fatigue, or some kind of aesthetic overload, and then Sorrentino pulls off a superb coup — a hard cut to a thoroughly outrageous and deafening Eurotrash party being thrown that evening for Jep Gambardella, an elegant, louche, sad-eyed bachelor, now 65 years old, played with a fascinating mask of charm by Toni Servillo.
He is a famous journalist and man-about-town, whose early promise as a novelist was never fulfilled. (London’s equivalent socialite might be Nicky Haslam or maybe Taki Theodoracopulos.) The party is pounding with the angular, glassy electro-pop that Sorrentino loves, and the bronzed men and women are unearthly rather than grotesque. Later in the film they will metamorphose into flamingos. In the midst of the uproar, one woman screams that she has lost her mobile phone, and Sorrentino allows this catastrophe to be absorbed, without pain, into the general maestrom: middle-aged people party until dawn like botoxed teenagers.
Jep is entirely content with his shallow and amusing world; he is a connoisseur of its exquisite surfaces: an Italian flâneur, a botaniser on the Roman asphalt, happy with ephemeral absurdities. But one day a man of Jep’s age arrives on his doorstep to tell Jep that his wife has just died — a woman who turns out to have been Jep’s first love when he was 18 years old, and whose love for Jep, this man sadly reveals, always exceeded her love for her husband. Deeply troubled and moved by this revelation, Jep finds his senses peeled and his heart refreshed, he begins a long and final emotional perambulation around the city that he loves. But where a specific loose Venetian paving stone might reveal the past to Proust, everything in Rome means something to Jep. He feels love again, and perhaps even has the power to start writing again, just when he feels the shadow of death fall across him.
In the 1960s, the great Pauline Kael famously described this kind of Italian movie as a “come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe party”, and at the time, the spoiled partygoers looked as if they were a dying breed. But they weren’t. Right now, in 2013, La Grande Bellezza looks like a “come-dressed-as-the-fantastically-vigorous-and-unrepentantly-hedonistic-soul-of-rich-Europe party”. There is an muscular and almost fanatical vitality in the party scenes, and even the quieter moments: the art exhibition, the funeral.
Toni Servillo is wonderful in the role, his sad-eyed gaze made more intense with blue contact lenses. He is not disappointed by life, nor even by the people who fail to realise that life is disappointing, but endlessly tolerant, with the weary elegance of a vampire.
This movie looks and feels superb, it is pure couture cinema. But there is also a excess of richness and bombast and for all its sleekness I felt that the spark of emotion was being hidden, and there is a kind of frustration in the operatic sadness. It is a brilliantly executed, glitteringly hypnotic film, though, one of the very best in the festival and it is time for Toni Servillo to get his best actor award here.