Everything that The Great Gatsby could have been, The Great Beauty actually is.
La Grande Bellezza multiplies Sorrentino’s style by ten. This film is a party. And it is a fun one. The Great Beauty is La Dolce Vita by way of the sexiest rager you’ve ever attended. It’s a love-letter to the city of Rome, but not one you’ve ever seen before. This picture is modern Rome, through and through: what’s ancient about the city are simply the remains of antiquity. The main character, Jep, lives a modern, fabulous existence in an ancient city, waking up with a view of the Colosseum from his bedroom window, and drinking orange juice while he looks over the wall into a convent-school. Modernity, antiquity, and religiosity overlap, fold in on one another. And so, by the way, do Renaissance architecture, club music, picturesque gardens, and performance art. Rome is in ruins, but on top of those ruins, among them, the city teems with new life, new art. New money as well as old. Gabriel Fauré, Arvo Pärt, Yolanda Be Cool, Zbigniew Preisner, Lele Marchitelli. The oldest profession and the youngest novitiate.
So the film is about wealthy Roman society people, but it's also about growing old and feeling as though one hasn't accomplished what one set out to accomplish... or, well, anything at all. Jep is chasing "the great beauty", or, if you prefer, the green light across the water. And he feels as though he's either given up chasing it or, perhaps, been chasing the wrong light for the last forty years. Of course, Jep doesn't know quite what he hopes to find or what he'll do when he does find it, but the movie follows his search for it.
And La Grande Bellezza does more than this, as well. As Jep is a keen observer of the people in his circle, we learn much about them, too, and much of this is fascinating, studied, and powerfully empathetic. Jep also sees a lot of art – performance art as well as fine art – and the film is studded with performance sequences and cinematographic explorations of old manors, as well as gorgeous shots of outrageous fashion. And the editing. I cannot say enough about the way this film moves through spaces, reflects Jep's mood, finds beauty in the mundane, while at the same standing in total awe of our ancient predecessors or absolutely great art. The film is overboard at all points. And so I fumble with my description. La Grande Bellezza is a film about wildness, the uncontainable, but the film is always formally on point; Sorrentino always knows what he's doing. His main character Jep even has a tendency to find all of this grandeur completely banal. He can simply stare at a piece of art and see nothing of the great beauty for which he searches. It all feels as though it's been done before.
We're all on the brink of despair, Jep says during an uncharacteristically tense moment. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little... Don't you agree?
But his cynicism is belied by Sorrentino's film. When, on an outdoor walk in Rome, Jep encounters Fanny Ardant on a staircase and shares a quick greeting with her before she disappears into the night (and disappears from the film), I was nearly giddy with delight. The beauty is everywhere. If Jep is right and we are all on the brink of despair, Sorrentino's film tells us that we are also always surrounded by beauty. At least in Rome, anyway.