Sunday, December 15, 2013

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty Italy 2013)

A wit I can't recall lamented in blunt irony that the rich are always with us. Fifty years after Fellini invited us to vicariously savour la dolce vita, another film-maker offers another glimpse into the demimonde, in a richly baroque, loving embrace of a Rome where ancient artefacts host the bunga-bunga vapidity of the latest incarnation of Roman excess. Luscious young women gyrate to pulsating dance music and bored rich people luxuriate in their ennui and self-absorption. Our guide is Jep Gambardella, a journalist on the cusp of old age. He once wrote a novel, something of which we are reminded rather too often, and loved a girl in his lost youth. Surprise, surprise, he finds his life wanting. A spiritual emptiness not so much a problem but a conceit. Much like his designer clothes and acid wit. For him, a funeral is a performance.

Jep, more with languor than urgency, between cigarettes and while staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, ponders the big questions in a small way. Is director Paolo Sorrenti playing a rather elaborate joke on the glitterati of film who like moths to the flame frenetically flutter in their ecstatic worship of this film? Is it all "blah, blah" as Jep muses in one of his rare lucid moments. Perhaps. Or maybe he actually is serious that we should care about Jep our guide.

Like the limping man with the mysterious suitcase, Jep has all the keys to the beauty of Rome. Yet he has never found its soul. Why? Not for want of trying. He most likely has looked in all the wrong places. Where are the right places? Sorrentini doesn't show us. Indeed does he even know? His Rome is a place beyond normal lives. Every frame is immaculately composed, but with all spontaneity excluded. A dead beauty where the mess of real lives is kept at an ethereal distance, lest it contaminate those perfect compositions.

Thankfully Sorrentini stumbles at the end. Enter a desiccated 104 year old toothless nun - a gratuitously banal caricature of Mother Teresa - and an ambitious cardinal. Her aphorisms are empty, and the cardinal, the bishop most likely to be the next Pope, who would rather talk about food than matters spiritual, has "no answers". He leaves the scene behind the gliding curtain of his glimmering limousine after insincerely blessing our lost hero. In these pitfalls Sorrentini exposes the inadequacy of his own answers. Jep will now write another novel about "the great beauty" beneath the "blah, blah". Just who is supposed to care?

There is a certain irony in seeing this film over 6 months after it's release. There is now a new Bishop Of Rome. He does not drive around in a shiny limousine and he doesn't live in a gilded palace. He picks up the phone and talks to people who have written to him with their problems. People in that world beyond the magnificent terraces of the rich.