Here’s the first of occasional posts on films about Italy and Italians: I was poised to like La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) aware that in 2014 it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the British BAFTA award, among many others. And indeed La Grande Bellezza is one of those films that sweeps you off your feet with great themes, gorgeous cinematography, exquisite acting, a rich and eclectic soundtrack and breathtaking Roman scenery, old and new.
A very talented Paolo Sorrentino directed and wrote the film. Sorrentino most definitely owns a unique vision but it’s clear he admires the great Fellini. Think La Dolce Vita. Think Amarcord. We begin with haunting choral music (David Lang’s “I Lie”) sung by a female choir on the Janiculum, one of the highest hills in Rome. Nearby, a Japanese tourist snaps photos of the timeless city below–then faints. Is the beauty of Rome is too much for some souls?
Then we’re jolted into the raucus 65th birthday party of main character and bon vivant, Jep Gabardelli, whooping it up on his own terrace in a baccanalia filled with dozens of his rich, sybaritic friends partying like there’s no tomorrow. Bespoke Jep, originally from Naples, has spent the last 40 years in Rome as the life of the party. But this landmark birthday forces him to realize that much of life has passed him by.
Unmarried and childless, Jep long ago wrote a bestselling novel but could never produce a second book. Now he occastionaly writes freelance articles. In his youth, he lost the only woman he ever loved. Post-party, an unexpected visit from a stranger brings some shocking news to Jep. And with this, we are off and running with Jep in a series of episodes around Rome as he re-assesses his life, trying to find some meaning in it.
Jep takes us on an entertaining odyssey through the Eternal City. We meet a complicated cast of characters: strippers, naked performance artists, a giraffe, a recipe-spouting Catholic Cardinal, a count and countess for rent and a bona fide saint in the form of an ancient, toothless nun. There is in this film one of the most bizarro scene I have ever seen on the screen involving a young girl as abstract painter. Boy that Jep–his life may be empty but it sure is crazy.
The movie presents many mysteries. Some existential, some not. One character we are invested in just disappears. One of the biggest mysteries in this film is how Jep can afford an apartment with a massive terrace across the street from the Coliseum on his salary of a sometime freelancer. Anyone? Anyone?
Despite his careless past, Jep is a very simpatico character. You like him. This is due in no small part to the performance of Toni Servillo, one of the best, if not the best, actor working in Italy today. (And good for Sorrentino for making a movie that features a 65-year old character.) The rest of the cast of La Grande Bellezza is just superb–Sorrentino mined the best of the best of Italian thespians.
So how do things work out for Jep? Does he find what he’s looking for? Does he know what he’s looking for? And what exactly is La Grande Bellezza–is it Roma or…life itself? Invest 141 exquisite minutes of your time to find out. Begin by viewing the trailer here. And I thank the still photographer on the set of this film for these pics.
By the way, at the end of this magical film, we see a tracking shot down the Tiber River during the long, elegiac closing credits–as we hear Vladimir Martynov’s “Beatitudes”. Stay for the whole thing. Don’t miss a frame.