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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.


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