Friday, May 31, 2013

The Great Beauty

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.

You could call Paolo Sorrentino’s two-and-a-half hour epic a modern version of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita with a dash of his Roma added. It could be seen as a pretentious version of both but it is certainly a strong contender for the Palme D’Or.

The film’s style and visual luxury and its equally extraordinary musical soundtrack, all newly minted by Lele Marchitelli, and a fine performance by Toni Servillo are winning qualities.

Servillo plays the ageing but still handsome Jeb, a hedonistic journalist who once wrote an admired novel but now only dreams of taking up his pen again. Instead, he lives the high life in Rome, masking his disenchantment with bitter irony and not entirely superficial charm and wit.

There’s humour as he describes the correct way to comfort the bereaved at a funeral and as he punctures the psyche of a self-righteous woman. Around him rich eccentrics cavort, his best friend’s wife dies (who turns out to have been Jeb’s mistress) and other women fall into his slightly bored lap.

Throughout his career, Paolo Sorrentino has had to endure unhelpful comparisons with his great compatriot Federico Fellini. With his follow-up to the slightly underrated This Must be the Place , the Italian director looks to be consciously embracing that supposed kinship. His magnificent new film moves in similar territory to that of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita . But The Great Beauty still feels very much Sorrentino’s own: sinister, surreal, on-edge, romantic. If it were a little less in love with its own reflection, it might well qualify as a masterpiece.

Toni Servillo, masterly as Giulio Andreotti in Sorrentino’s Il Divo , turns up as a celebrated journalist contemplating a life lived among preening socialites, pretentious artists and deluded drug addicts. This Jap Gambardella once wrote a great novel, but the disorder of Rome’s social whirl has kept him from following up his early promise. Over the course of the film, he gradually comes to terms with the reasons for his decadent decline and contemplates a surge forward.

The film is defiantly short on structure, but the beautiful chaos is so chaotically beautiful that only the surliest viewer will think to complain.

They dance. Bodies jerking and convulsing, they dance. Faces smiling or grimacing, ecstatic or exhausted, they dance. As if they had to escape at any cost, losing themselves in a series of interchangeable nights and parties, they dance. Jep isn’t the worst of them... Paolo Sorrentino always gives the characters in his films pompous, ridiculous names that reveal their self-importance and vacuity: Antonio Pisapia, Titta Di Girolamo, Geremia De Geremei... Jep Gambardella is played by the director’s usual accomplice, Toni Servillo, who brilliantly captures his character’s snobbish malaise. Forty years earlier, Jep wrote a novel that his friends still talk about, even if they haven’t read it. One of those amazing books that make literary hacks realize the futility of their own work... And then he stopped. Out of laziness. Or perhaps out of fear that it was a one-off fluke. Instead, he became a journalist. And, more importantly, a socialite. Not just any socialite: the number one. “I didn’t just want to take part in the parties, I wanted to have the power to ruin them”, he boasts.

With the exception of the politician Giulio Andreotti in Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino’s protagonists tend to be weak and tired. Time has gnawed away at these zombies; they find life a struggle and are ashamed of it. Before it’s too late, they force themselves to strike out in a new direction: the hero of One Man Up sets off in search of his homonym, his double; the protagonist of The Consequences of Love throws himself into a quest to regain his lost dignity, even risking his life in the process. Because they’ve sleep-walked through much of their lives, because they’re lagging behind, Sorrentino seems to put pressure on them, rushing them along with his camera. Tracking forwards, backwards, sideways - he never stops. Sometimes, you feel like shouting to him: “Stop! Calm down; take it easy!”... But the camera relentlessly bears down on people, places and objects. It gets up close, brushes past them, pulls away and sometimes even flies up into the air. But when it stops - and that does actually happen from time to time -, it is to contemplate, with love and a touch of dread, the great beauty of life: the immense, silent Roman palazzi that Jep enters one night, guided by a young man with a limp, carrying, in a briefcase that he never lets go of, the keys to all life’s wonders. The keys to paradise...

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