Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

05 January 2014

The Best Movie of the Year

Everything that The Great Gatsby could have been, The Great Beauty actually is.

A couple of years ago when Paolo Sorrentino’s film Il Divo: the Spectacular Life of Giulio Andreotti was nominated for Best Makeup, no one had heard of this movie. (Or maybe it was just me who didn't have it anywhere near my radar.) In any case, my friends and I were shocked by how much we loved this movie, especially the fast-paced editing and the cleverness of Sorrentino’s visual style. Il Divo was a movie that was visually fascinating, and because of that, it was a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed, despite having no previous interest in Giulio Andreotti or the Italian political process in general.

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.

The plot of La Grande Bellezza is about an aging novelist, who penned a masterpiece in his twenties but hasn’t written a thing since. Why haven’t you written anything since your first great novel? everyone asks him throughout the film. I went out at night, he always responds. Jep has chosen to become a socialite. And he’s great at it. Like the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past (Proust appears as a kind of leitmotif for the entire film as well as being an obvious inspiration), Jep is a keen observer of his society and his friends. He loves parties. He is the king of parties. And he knows everyone. He sees the depth and complexity in all of the shallowest people.

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.

It is a superb testament to the filmmaking abilities of Paolo Sorrentino that he can make a film about a man who is exhausted by the life he leads into a completely compelling, vivid, and beautiful portrait of an ancient city. Sorrentino captures Rome perfectly. La Grande Bellezza is Fellini for the twenty-first century. It is more than that, even. Sorrentino has made a movie that spoke to me deeply about my own search for inspiration, for novelty, for beauty in the everyday.

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.