La Agrodolce Vita


La Grande Bellezza - 2013
AKA The Great Beauty
Written by Paolo Sorrentino & Roberto Contarello
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

It would be easy to dismiss this blogazine as primarily interested in lowbrow genre entertainments.  I feel that it would be inaccurate and unfair, but it would be easy, even excusable.  So, if for no other reason than rehabilitating that image, I'd like to add a little bit of highbrow fancy-pants foreign cinema to the mix.  But, that's not the only reason.  The fact is, I saw La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) well over a month ago, and it has continued to resonate with me.

La Grande Bellezza is, in case you had not yet caught on, an Italian film, and it indulges with gusto in the kind of things that set European cinema apart from commercial American film, almost to the point of caricature.  That also just happens to be part of its greatness.  This film is absolutely head-over-heels in love with Rome, and part of that expression is to be the most Rome it can possibly be, and that includes cloaking itself Fellini-esque cinematic language.  This one goes to eleven.  Eleven Rome.

And that's apt, because its central character, Jep Gambardella is Eleven Rome.  He puts the romantic in roman antics.  He even savors his disdain for Rome, for it's the kind of disdain that only someone who loves it and knows it intimately can understand and appreciate.  When I say that Jep is central, I mean like the sun.  He is the gravity around which the entire film revolves.  A case could be made that Jep is the only one we can be certain truly exists, and all others are but part of the Rome he dreams.

The dream metaphor is no coincidence.  The entire film has a very dreamlike quality; not so much driven from scene to scene by the demands of plot as strolling through a series of gorgeous locations content that it doesn't need to get anywhere else but where it is in any given moment.  Each scene is worthwhile on its own merits, an experience to be drunk in, savored, and allowed to go to one's head.  This kind of languorous pacing will irritate and infuriate certain audiences, but let's not talk about them.  The wine is kicking in and I can't think of a single reason to invite them over when we're having such a nice time already...

The film opens with one vast Fellini-gasm as Jep and about a hundred living, dancing faces of Rome (there's even a little person, in an obvious nod to Fellini) bump, grind and extemporize their way through his 65th birthday.  Jep, you see, is the man.  He's the author of one smashingly successful novel who has spent that last 35 years getting by on that success, trading on reviews and talk panel appearances to fuel his life-of-the-party lifestyle.  He's a somewhat less tortured Roman Gatsby of sorts.  There is no one special in his life, and yet he loves all those in his orbit, probably because they each represent a sparkling facet of his true life partner; Rome.  It is, however, a detached kind of love, arguably narcissistic, because they merely reflect Rome's light, and he is the sun that shines upon it.  Rome might be his life partner, but it's not the passion.  Something is missing, and that may be why he hasn't written another book in 35 years.

Following the party, Jep gets to bed around sunrise, due for some serious sleep.  Because of this scene, I continued to believe that the rest of the movie would be a dream.  It never tipped its hat to this, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it wasn't.  He drifts between social engagements and placid moments of art appreciation.  People come into his life and leave; sometimes in ways that should be startling but aren't experienced as such by Jep.  It's a grand canvas smeared with emotional pigments, faded by the Roman sun.

I don't want to suggest that there is no narrative arc to La Grande Bellezza.  Jep's seemingly ephemeral wanderings of Rome each key into an ongoing personal development that doesn't really connect until deep into the third act, unlocking that which has remained bound deep inside him.  Even then, it still isn't handled in as definitive a manner as your average American film-goer has been trained to expect and thus demand.  This is a show, not tell kind of movie.  The feelings that we're given to deal with are not tidy, and are sometimes just plain confusing -- but isn't that a huge part of human emotion, after all?

Once seen, it almost goes without saying that it is visually gorgeous.  It's simply redundant, unless you're explaining it to one who hasn't seen it.  I hope the director got a kickback from the Roman tourism board, because every single frame is filled with something incredible to look at.  Jep's wandering a museum again?  Well why the hell wouldn't he?  He's surrounded with wonders and recognizes it; fills his life with it, and life becomes pretty wonderful even when sadness arises.

It was only after watching the movie that I found out it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.  It's pretty easy to see why.  It would never be included in a race of Hollywood/New York/London movies, but it wholly embodies its Italian foreign-ness.  The way that it embraced the Italian lifestyle, or a certain depiction of it, anyway, really stuck with me.  It was not at all unusual for the old and young to be enjoying life and partying together.  Generational separations meant far less than Italian togetherness.  Everyone was out enjoying their lives rather than huddled around their televisions in their homes secured against their sca-a-ary fellow countrymen.  That was certainly my experience 30 years ago when I was a student in France as well, and I appreciated the reminder.

La Grande Bellezza is what it says -- it's a painting, a sculpture, a chapel, a dance, a concerto, a work of heartfelt art.  It is a Great Beauty.

No comments:

Post a Comment