Thursday, February 06, 2014

THE GREAT BEAUTY: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening Friday in the Triangle at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh, the Carolina Theatre in Durham, and the Chelsea Theatre in Chapel Hill...

(Dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

On a trip through Europe last year, my wife and I stumbled upon an exhibit entitled “Fellini and the Arts” at the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz, Germany. On display were hundreds of the late Italian filmmaker’s drawings, photographs, documents, costumes, props (including the original moulding of Donald Sutherland’s head for FELLINI’S CASANOVA) – all reminders of the vividly wild worlds of decadence and introspection the director created for nearly fifty years on film until his death in 1993.

So when word was going around that Paolo Sorrentino’s newest film, THE GREAT BEAUTY (Italian title: LA GRANDE BELLEZZA), was extrememly Fellini-esque – a modern update of LA DOLCE VITA many critics have called it – I was incredibly intrigued, but while the comparisons are valid, this film has a heartbeat (a techno beat at times) and a vision that are all its own.

Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo stars as one of my favorite film archetypes: an author of a very celebrated debut book who never came through with a follow-up (see D.OA., WONDER BOYS, STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING, SINISTER).

So Servillo poignantly portrays a once promising novelist turned high society magazine columnist who looks back on his life with a renewed self awareness. This happens a few days after the over-the-top rooftop rave of his 65th birthday party (a flashy and fun opening sequence) when he finds himself going through a “what does it all mean?” phase while he suavely schleps in expensively tailored suits around some of the Rome’s most exquisite sights.

Such material can bring fears of pretentious pontification, but Servillo’s jaded journalist attacks pretentions at every turn. When interviewing a question evading publicity seeking performance artist (Anita Kravos) whose act consists of head butting the wall of an aqueduct and speaks of living on extra sensory vibrations, Servillo sensibly states that “all I’ve heard is un-publishable fluff. You can’t charm me with things like: ‘I’m an artist, I don’t need to explain.’”

In another stand-out scene, Servillo savagely rips to shreds the criticisms and boasts of a fellow socialite/writer (Galatea Ranzi) with his savage wit and an honesty that doesn’t spare his own status. Somehow, by the end of their exchange Servillo appears to have compassion and empathy for his verbal victim when he speaks of her “untruths and fragility.” There’s a great beauty in that, I can’t help saying.

Though it’s Servillo’s show, notable characters on the sidelines include Giovanna Vignola as the writer's blue-haired dwarf editor, Carlo Verdone as a struggling playwright friend, Sabrina Ferilli as an aging stripper that Servillo has a few genuine moments with, and Roberto Herlitzka as Cardinal Bellucci, who brushes our protagonist off when he asks questions about his spirituality.

Herlitzka is one of the protectors of a 104-year old Mother Theresa-like nun (Sonia Gessner), who Servillo poses his existential concerns to. But like everybody else, Gessner just asks “Why did you never write another book?”

Even with its immaculate imagery that could serve as an erotic ad campaign for the splendors of Italy, I wanted more of THE GREAT BEAUTY to be more dialogue-driven by way of Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello’s layered screenplay, but the sumptuous cinematography by Luca Bigazzi makes the point to 'screw the meaning of it all, just look at how beautiful the scenery is' better than these folks’ words ever could.

As for the Fellini-esque-ness of it all, the thing I hope it most resembles the great Italian masters' work in is that it wins the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, like 4 of Fellini's films did, at this year's Oscars.

More later...

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