Talking Pictures

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The Great Beauty / La grande belleza.

Posted by keith1942 on October 19, 2013


This is the new feature by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. Like his earlier The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo(2008) this stars Toni Servillo. Here Servillo plays journalists and bon viveur Jep Gambardella. Jep is celebrating his 66th birthday and nearly forty years of both professional success and the enjoyment of being a leading light in the social circles of the Roman bourgeoisie. As the film develops we learn more about Jep, including flashbacks to a failed youthful romance. And we learn that after an initially critically successful first novel Jep has forsaken ‘art’ for journalism and celebrity.

The film is full of images of Rome and also of the glittering but empty socialising of bourgeois celebrities and their acolytes. This immediately refers us back to Fellini’s great 1960 portrait La Dolce Vita. And there are strong parallels between Jep and the protagonist of Fellini’s earlier film, Marcello. Both are involved in journalism, though the new feature exclude the excesses of the paparazzi. Both appear to have opted for the shallow pleasures of celebrity culture rather than deeper emotional involvement. Both display a surface cynicism, which may mask more disquieting emotions.

However, by the end of their respective films there is a clear divergence. Our final sight of Marcello is on a beach near Rome, where he watches a group of fisherman hauled in a monstrous strange fish. Then he sees a young girl, across an outlet of water, making signs. But he cannot understand her. We are left with Marcello’s puzzlement and a large close up of the young girl. Simple credits follow against a black screen.

We leave Jep as we realise that, after a break of nearly forty years, he is starting to write a second novel. It will clearly be some sort of telling of the lost romance of his youth. The credits unroll against a slow tracking shot along the Tiber, under bridges and pass embankments. Marcello is left against the vast, grey and mysterious ocean. In Jep’s case we have an old-fashioned and [I think] somewhat romantic image of water.

The Great Beauty is able to suggest a particular resonance because it is in colour rather than black and white. The texture of the river, and the green fonds in the current, give a particular feel to the palette of the image. There are parallel differences in the images of Rome that both films provide. Fellini’s film open with the impressive aerial shot of both Rome and a Christ-figure. Sorrentino’s introduction to Rome of the C21st down plays religion and suggests the Rome of the tourists. Equally the decadent parties we see in the Fellini film are shown in black and white and have a sharp acerbic feel. Sorentino’s parties are show in vibrant colour, with digital effects, and initially seem just like pop videos.

This is the Italy of Berlusconi, some way from the late 1950s Rome of Fellini. The latter saw an ‘economic miracle’ that has eluded the media-savvy contemporary politician. Intriguingly Sorrentino’s earlier Il Divo presented a portrait of the politician Andreotti, whose career more or less spans the decades between La Dole Vita and Berlusconi. S&S suggested a ‘loose trilogy’ with these three films by Sorrentino, and given that The Consequences of Love deals with the Mafia, we have central institutions and players in Italy in the second half of the C20th.

The Great Beauty seems to reference both cinema and the larger society. Another film that chronicles the changing relationship between the two is Cinema Paradiso (1988). And this would seem to provide another set of references in this new film. The flashbacks to the young romance reminded me strongly of Tornatore’s film. And in both films the older, jaded character displays a sense of change in response to the past. In The Great Beauty Jep is provoked by the widower of his lost love. And the voice over of the opening lines of Jep’s new novel at the closure reminded me forcibly of the montage of censored film images that closes Cinema Paradiso.

One Response to “The Great Beauty / La grande belleza.”

  1. […] The Great Beauty / La grande bellezza (Italy, France 2013) […]

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