It has been said that director Paolo Sorrentino lost the plot somewhat with his American road movie ‘This Must Be The Place’. Now, with ‘The Great Beauty’, we see him return to familiar ground with this pulsating, swirling, colourful study of the concepts of consumerism, social climbing, and of course beauty, that is having five star reviews flung at it left right and centre. Immediately reminiscent of both Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’ and Leos Carax’s ‘Holy Motors’, this film is far from mainstream, but it’s deeply affecting nature will lure many in by the end of the 142 minute run time, even if initially put off by the sporadically leering rhetoric, and the rather glib use of dwarfs and some decidedly ‘overcooked’ ladies.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is an ageing magazine columnist, who’s deluded outlook on life is underpinned by his acute and unfortunate awareness that so very often things are not what they seem. The narrative around his character is played out via a series of mini-films, each nudging you slowly closer to the realisation that in fact Jep’s biggest problem is his inability to see beauty in a personal sense, instead always clambering for what he believes a ‘great beauty’ should be, in the eyes of the many.
He does have moments of clarity, the most poignant being at an evening drinks event with his friends. His friend, a fading radical novelist, busies herself with making alot of noise about her successes and riddling the evening air with patronising remarks. Jep very brilliantly takes exception to this, and instead of blanking nodding along like Churchill the dog he answers her with everything she does not want to hear, that being everything she secretly knows to be true – she is an empty vessel, flailing through life with so little direction and satisfaction that all she has the ability to cling to is that which is inherently meaningless.
The mini Jep vignettes we are guided through will reach both extremes of your emotional spectrum, some totally debauched and uncomfortable, others very touching. Perhaps the most tender sequence is when Jep has met Ramona (played by Sabrina Ferrilli), and while lying in bed naked with him she quietly reveals what she spends all her money on. For that moment, the inflated, puffed up chests of both Jep and the film alike are metraphorically deflated, as he realises simultaneously that his ‘great beauty’ is tainted, but also that it doesn’t make him care for her any less.
A haunting score, stunning cinematography and an uncomfortably probing objective make ‘The Great Beauty’ a film that while being undeniably beautiful itself, certainly demands an open minded viewer. Everyone will take different morals and lessons from this Fellini-esque film – some will find it superficial, some will find it overly complex, but undoubtedly many will fall in love with its ability to visually and emotionally explore the idea that beauty is both contextual and personal, rather than a universally recognised standard.
3 out of 5.
Not a perfect film and will certainly divide opinion – but the fact it’s the morals of the story rather than the pleasing aesthetics that stay with you speaks volumes.