Skip to main content

That violent head butt made me understand many things.

The Great Beauty
(2013)

I’m not the greatest Fellini fan. I know Gilliam worships the guy, and he’s generally praised as one of the masters of European cinema, but he’s only ever elicited a bit of a shrug. With all the talk of Paulo Sorrentino’s indebtedness, not least from himself, I’m wondering whether I should reappraise. Because I really liked The Great Beauty. On occasion it stammers rather than sashays some of the recognisable devices and tics of its biggest influence (it’s much better on the hedonism than the spiritual angst), but more frequently this is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears, anchored by a wonderfully persevering performance from Toni Servillo.


Servillo’s Jep Gambardello is a cheerfully louche fellow, a writer who received acclaim early in his career for a single novel (The Human Apparatus) before forsaking hard graft for an easy life of column writing and socialising. He’s the life and soul of the party, for whom morning is an unknown object. But on turning 65 he finds himself in reflective mode, as we follow his odyssey through the streets and habitations and great and not so good of Rome.


It’s a melancholy tale, often a very funny one, and the whole is beautifully photographed by Lica Bigazzi. This may be a commentary on the empty vice of Berlusconi-era Italy, but the materialistic decadence of Sorrentino’s vision is universal. If you needed proof of the Fellini-ness of it all, look out for the little people (also one of Gilliam’s recurrent obsessions) and nuns. It’s in through the embrace of the mannerisms of European art cinema that Sorrentino finds his breadth of vision, unfettered by a typical narrative structure (although less off the wall than the previous year’s Holy Motors). 


He has a lot of fun playing with conventions, taking pokes at pretensions both artistic (“I’m an artist. I don’t need to explain Jack Shit” offers Talia Concept, whose pubic hair is adorned with the hammer and sickle and who runs head first into a wall; her boyfriend covers basket balls with confetti; “He’s sensational”) and political (Jep blithely eviscerates Stefania’s claim to authenticity, while taking comfort in his own self-aware lack of the same). There’s the banal mirth at the expense of the botox queues (a woman informs the operating professor she has just come back from India; “I had amazing dysentery”). And did you know, the Ethiopian jazz scene is the only interesting one today? Conversely, the sight of middle-aged and above types larging it to modern dance tunes is oddly beguiling rather than off-putting (Lele Marchitelli’s music choices are exceptional throughout). As much as he is critiquing the vacuity, Sorrentino is celebrating it.


Reflecting Jep’s increasing thoughts of mortality, his journey takes a more sombre path. The daughter of an old friend (armed with erudite flippancy at all times, Jep asks “Why did you have to call her Ramona?”), an ageing stripper, attracts his platonic interest, which is a change for him, and he appears to be mentoring her for a while. But she holds her own darkness, and his tutoring in the etiquette of funeral ceremonies sees him breaking the number one rule (he starts sobbing). Even there, Sorrentino’s wicked sense of humour breaks through, as the wife of an attendee protests “Your back!” when he reluctantly volunteers to bear the casket.


And he throws curveballs too; there’s much dissection of art and talent. Good friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) becomes disenchanted by a city that has used him; he lacks the talent to create, or the looks to attract ladies. Unlike Jep, to whom everything comes easy but who has coasted on unused talent, the city has disappointed him; it is all veneer and no depth, and when depth is demanded there is only hostility (“You’ve written a pile of shit”, dismisses the woman to whom he has enslaved himself). 


Then there’s the young girl proclaimed as a painting prodigy; we think this is going to be another piss-take of the shallow elite, until we realise that she really is talented (Jep may or may not be missing the point when he responds to the suggestion that she was crying with “Nonsense, that girl earns millions”). The only problem is she wants to be a vet (it isn’t clear if her cries are rage at parents co-opting her into performance art or this is actually a part of her performance art). 


Jep is attentive only to the enriched domain over which he presides, such that he is unaware of one of the world’s ten most wanted men living on his doorstep. And he is surprised by an acquaintance’s revelation that the girl who left him when they were teenagers saw him as his great love. In part it this that reignites his reflection and spurs him on. But the quest for spiritual answers finds Sorrentino on lumpier ground; a food-obsessed exorcist appears to confirm that the religious establishment has nothing of importance to say, while a sister known as “The Saint” shuts down requests for an interview with “I took a vow of poverty, and you cant talk about poverty. You have to live it”. Whether or not it is intended, her genuine depth (she can talk to flamingos) comes across as glibly as Jep’s world.


Perhaps this is because Sorrentino has set himself up to address the imponderables. And you wonder if he does so because that’s what Fellini would do (à la La Dolce Vita), rather than because he is genuinely asking those questions.


Sorrentino may not have that much to say about the greater mysteries, only questions, so these themes arise more provocatively when he doesn’t attempt to give voice to them. When the content is purely visual. Jep’s final monologue fins him apparently inspired to write again by the truth of the recognition of love itself, from all those years ago, something at odds with the superficiality he has embraced and hidden behind for so long. But Sorrentino’s film delights in the journey rather than the destination; it may be an irony that Jep’s realisation is limited (after all, he does not deal with what lies beyond), or maybe the understanding he comes to is intended as both a release and a restriction.


**** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.

A Night at the Opera (1935)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers head over to MGM, minus one Zeppo, and despite their variably citing A Night at the Opera as their best film, you can see – well, perhaps not instantly, but by about the half-hour mark – that something was undoubtedly lost along the way. It isn’t that there’s an absence of very funny material – there’s a strong contender for their best scene in the mix – but that there’s a lot else too. Added to which, the best of the very funny material can be found during the first half of the picture.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit, man.

Underwater (2020)
(SPOILERS) There’s no shame in a quality B-movie, or in an Alien rip-off done well. But it’s nevertheless going to need that something extra to make it truly memorable in its own right. Underwater, despite being scuppered at the box office, is an entirely respectable entry in both those arenas from director William Eubank, but like the recent Life (which, in fairness, had an ending that very nearly elevated it to the truly memorable), it can’t quite go that extra mile, or summon that much needed sliver of inspiration to set it apart.

I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

Room Service (1938)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers step away from MGM for a solitary RKO outing, and a scarcely disguised adaption of a play to boot. Room Service lacks the requisite sense of anarchy and inventiveness of their better (earlier) pictures – even Groucho’s name, Gordon Miller, is disappointingly everyday – but it’s nevertheless an inoffensive time passer.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Goodbye, Mr Chimps.

At the Circus (1939)
(SPOILERS) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it).

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…