Review by Dennis Morton (audio above / see text below)
The Great Beauty, an Italian film, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is almost two and a half hours long, and, on my initial viewing, it took me almost thirty minutes to begin to enjoy it. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the camera is mostly focused on a wild party that takes place on the huge balcony of a posh apartment overlooking the ancient Roman Coliseum.
Was the point to skewer the ostentatious opulence of the party-goers and their host, or what? Upon reflection, I realized there was a touch of skewering in the scene, but that it was primarily a flamboyant way to introduce viewers to most of the major characters in the film.
The apartment belongs to the protagonist, a man named Jep. And it turns out that it’s a surprise party, in his honor… a birthday party. He’s just turned 65. The music, the dancing, the good time being had by all, and, the subtitles, added up to a lot of busy-ness that simply took me a while to adjust to. I’m glad I hung in there, because The Great Beauty grew on me. There is, in fact, an abundance of beauty in the movie. The score is gorgeous, and during the course of the film, the camera pans across more architectural splendor than most of us will see in a lifetime, at least in the flesh.
Jep, it turns out, is a journalist. He works for a magazine that is influential among thecognoscenti. And, when he was twenty six, he wrote a novel that became immensely popular and made him famous. We find out, in several scenes that follow the party, that Jep is an unusually intelligent fellow. He’s the kind of guy that Rome’s high-society folks like to hang out with. Jep is on the quiet side, keenly observant, and capable at any moment of verbally withering whoever might be pretentious enough to exaggerate their accomplishments in his presence. Men seek his company and advice. Women seek his bed and advice.
What we gradually come to understand is that Jep does not exclude himself from excoriation, although most of it is internal, and not shared with the privileged coterie. There are only two people who communicate with Jep on equal terms. One is his housekeeper. The other is the editor at the magazine he writes for. She is a dwarf, with an oversized brain and a tongue to match it.
There are deaths to grapple with in The Great Beauty, and the cause of one of the deaths is curiously unexplained. Two of the dead are children of the wealthy, and with ‘affluenza’ in the news recently, one is left to wonder if Director Sorrentino isn’t perhaps a few steps ahead of the sociologists. There are some odd, and a few downright bizarre characters with bit parts in The Great Beauty. Among them – a Cardinal rumored to be next in line for the papacy. He can’t stop providing culinary tips to everyone within earshot. There’s a prepubescent little girl who throws gallons of brightly colored paints on a massive canvass, squishes them around with her hands, and then sells them for millions. There’s a woman whose idea of entertaining folks is to head-butt rock walls and then tell the audience that she does not love them.
Sorrentino is being mentioned in the same breath with Fellini. Find out for yourself.