REVIEW: The Great Beauty

18 01 2014

If you’re expecting “The Great Beauty” to be a picturesque travelogue like “Roman Holiday” or Woody Allen’s recent “To Rome With Love,” you’ll be in for a bit of a shock.  Yes, Paolo Sorrentino’s tale unfurls in the Eternal City, and the setting does indeed inform the proceedings.  However, it is more than just a series of events in the foreground with Rome in the background.

Sorrentino’s film aims to strip back the facade of the city and examine what lies beneath.  There’s something more to the city’s beautiful art and architecture as well as the creative class of intelligentsia basking in its legacy.  But when Sorrentino drills for the core, he finds a lot of air.  That’s not to say the film is meaningless, but perhaps the lifestyles of the people parading across the screen are.

“The Great Beauty” exposes the vacuous hedonism of Rome’s elite.  Here, they bask in the legacy of history while leaving little of their own behind.  The film’s protagonist, writer Jep Gambardello (Toni Servillo), slowly discovers the vapidity of his social circle upon turning 65.  They’re obsessed with performance, and they’re either watching performance art or putting on a show of inheriting a city’s history.  Jep’s no exception; he wrote one novella while young yet never wrote another piece of fiction despite its incredible success.  Jep is numbed by the empty pursuit of luxury, leaving him in creative paralysis.

While Jep might be suffering from a lack of inspiration or ability to find what he calls “the great beauty” of life, Sorrentino has no such trouble.  His camera seems to glide perpetually through the picture, recalling Jeff Cronenweth’s photography for David Fincher’s “The Social Network” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  I do think the film is occasionally guilty of trafficking in the opulence it also critiques (seemingly a common thread this year – cough, “The Bling Ring” and “The Wolf of Wall Street“).

While the images never cease to stun, Sorrentino’s unique story structure often threatened to stun me to sleep.  Jep’s dealings with various Romans, from his editor to a 42-year-old stripper to a future saint, never really seem to build any dramatic momentum.  The film feels rather stagnant, making its point clear in about an hour and then lingering for an additional 80 minutes like an unwanted house-guest.  Still, at least “The Great Beauty” has a little something for you to chew on other than the classic iconography of the city.  B- / 2stars

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3 responses

18 01 2014
jjames36

I wondered about this one. Didn’t see it in the couple weeks before it left the one theater that screened it in my area. After reading this, I don’t really regret that.

3 03 2014
danyulengelke

Great review!

Linking to your article for Academy Winners Monday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

Keep up the good work!

3 03 2014

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