The months of January and February are often barren of good films unless one ignores all the Oscar nominated films that get extended runs during these two months. One must be thankful for these films and especially those nominated for best foreign film that finally get a release in North America. The Great Beauty (2013) is an Italian-European co-production directed by Paolo Sorrentino. It received great acclaim in both North America and Europe and deservedly so. It is the best film I have seen so far this year, and will undoubtedly continue to be one of my favourites for the remainder the year. The film follows a hedonistic, aging writer/columnist as he reflects on his past, present and future. He meets numerous people and these interactions give him renewed insight of that which is beautiful in life.
This is the first Sorrentino film that I have seen and thus I am sadly devoid of knowledge relating to his other films. However, if I would have to judge him on this film solely, I would say that he is an extremely talented director. The film can best be defined as beautiful in both form and content. The cinematography and lush vistas of Rome show off the beautiful architecture from two eras of Italy’s glorious past: the Renaissance and the Roman Empire. The beauty is also found in the mise-en-scene of interior locations with beautiful actors as well. However, it is not style over substance by any means. The most beautiful aspect of the film are the protagonist’s musings and conversational interactions between the characters. The film feels like Fellini meets Visconti, in that the protagonist and his story are that of a Fellini character but the setting and décor are, in a different way, as rich and beautiful as they are in a Visconti film.
The film revels in Italian natural and man-made beauty. It also heavily satirizes some of the more bizarre aspects of high society, such as the modern art scene or the role of the Catholic church in Italy, but does so in a hilarious way. The humour is interspersed with scenes of debauchery, tranquility and quiet dramatic moments which sum up perfectly the life of the aging author. The protagonist is played magnificently by Toni Servillo, who is apparently a regular in Sorrentino films. The Italian cast that surrounds him includes such actors as Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Bucirosso and many others. Everyone plays their part naturally which creates a cohesive ensemble.
The film contains many surreal or heightened scenes that are hard to discern as a dream, a memory or reality. The main character acts without any real agency but acts passively, letting himself be enveloped by his surroundings, whether it be with women and sex, parties with his friends, or pursuing a genuine love. His visceral, everyday debauchery is not treated as some sin that must be purged from his soul but as the path, albeit somewhat empty and repetitive after so many years.
This film also has a brilliant score with an assortment of music that ranges from classical to modern party music. It is as varied as the scenes in the film and some of the specific songs enhance to a great degree ones attachment and aesthetic fulfillment. Not to give anything away but the closing shot/credit sequence of the film is magical. The score radiates feelings of melancholia, passion, joy, and, of course, beauty and makes the filmic experience more personal and emotionally evocative. Since I saw the film it has lingered on my mind; I listen to the score and rethink scenes and themes of the film. It was a filmic experience that endured and was not immediately put out of my mind.
As someone who has had to endure mediocre schlock for the past two months, The Great Beauty (2013) is a bright beacon of filmmaking that illuminated the winter despair. Without ever feeling too pretentious or art house, the film manages to strike a balance between entertainment and art effectively. This is the year’s first surprise for me as I was not sure what to expect. The film has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category and for good reason. Before the award show takes place at the beginning of March, do yourself a favour and go watch this marvellous piece if you have not already done so.