The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

UK Release Date 6th September 2013
Director Paolo Sorrentino
Starring Toni Servillo
Runtime 142 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 20th September 2013

I love a film that steers you in one direction and then gradually makes you realise you jumped to conclusions way too early. This was very much the case with La Grande Bellezza. I spent the first twenty minutes bemoaning it’s character’s pretensions and first world problems, then it gradually dawned on me that the characters themselves are mocking their own issues.

The movie takes us on a ride with Jep Gambardella (a superb Toni Servillo), an ageing interviewer for hire who once wrote a book which may be profound or awful depending on who you asked. He has spent the intervening years being the ‘king of the party’, drinking and whoring his way around a decadent Rome. We catch up with Jep at his 65th party - the mother of all birthday parties, surrounded by what may or may not be his friends.

From then on, Jep's life seems to start falling apart, not in the traditional ‘wife and kids leave him’ style - he has neither but more that you get the sense that the few layers that his life has are gradually falling away. This is triggered by an old friend turning up on his doorstep with the news that his wife has died after 30 years of marriage. Turns out that the wife spent that entire time in love with Jep. From Jep's point of view, this may have been the only true love of his life, even though they only spent a small amount of time together as teenagers. 

The effect this news has on Jep isn’t incredibly obvious because this film isn’t particularly interested in the obvious. Many mentions have been made in other reviews of the influence of Fellini and it’s hard to argue with that. There are touches of both La Dolce Vita and 81/2 here and it’s all the better for it. Around Jep swirls a collection of oddities, both in terms of character and story, whilst he drifts backwards into his memories, reliving the fateful day when he found his great beauty.

Jep himself is a wonderful character and Servillo is perfect. His chiselled face is a study of grinning excess and baffled isolation. During his party he stands in splendid isolation amongst the revellers as a huge grin fixes on his face. He seemingly drifts out from the scene, cigarette clamped in grin, whilst at the same time encapsulating everything about the party. He is a hedonist but he is well aware of himself and doesn’t seek to excuse or justify it. He claims he wanted to be king of the party, not to be stood at the top though, so he ‘had the power to ruin them’.

The Great Beauty is certainly a beautiful film. Even whilst it revels in the shining excess of Jep's crowd, it brings out wonderful, unexpected moments. At various times we see a dwarf stood on a wall surrounded by the detritus of the party, Rome’s stunning dawn filling the scene behind her. Later, Jep seemingly rounds a corner and is faced with a giraffe, stood by an arch and finally we get a flock of flamingoes, roosting on Jep's balcony whilst he trips over a sleeping saint on the floor of his bedroom.

If any of that sounds like pretentious tosh, I empathise but this film is anything but. Sorrentino’s movie is too playful, too self-aware to be indulgent. Sure the characters indulge themselves to inhuman extremes but Jep anchors us and guides us through the maze of surreal images and at times twisting storytelling. Surrounded by deaths but never fearing death, Jep glides through his existence, grinning, drinking and charming his way through. Tellingly, his most intimate moment comes when he dances with an old friend under a tree. An old friend that only hours before he had completely taken apart in the most brutally honest way during a discussion with their friends.

At nearly two and a half hours, The Great Beauty at times threatens to outstay its welcome but equally, when the dialogue is zinging back and forth, I wanted to listen to this all day. This is a wonderful, decadent, ethereal film that will stay with you for more than the journey home.

Check out the trailer here.

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