The Impotence of Being Egocentric
Review of The Great Beauty
One of the fundamental principles of Classical Hollywood Filmmaking is getting to the point. A cardinal rule is to hook the audience in the first minute and introduce the protagonist and their central goal in the first ten minutes. Many of the strongest screenplays find a way to adhere to that convention but keep it fresh and exciting.
There are other films that do not follow this pattern, but are still captivating cinematic achievements. A recent exemplar is the Oscar-nominated Italian film The Great Beauty, which examines the decadence and pretentiousness of the lives of the crème-de-la-crème highbrow, intellectual and wealthy celebrity Roman society.
It’s in some ways like an opera in terms of going for ambiance and style rather than a linear plot. It begins with an elongated (maybe 20 to 25 minute) prologue that has nothing directly to do with the plot and more radically, doesn’t introduce any of the film’s central characters. But it does establish the ambiance and surreal mood of the film. It starts out with a series of alternating moving camera, high and low angle shots of the glorious Roman architecture. Things start to take a strange turn as character and spatial relations get blurred. There’s an interesting and odd cross-cutting between different groups of people, namely Japanese tourists accompanied by an Italian Japanese-speaking interpreter and a choir of female a cappella singers under an outdoor chapel. The scene finishes with one of the Japanese tourists breaking away from the group to savor the beauty of the landscape before collapsing from a heart attack that both shocks and amuses.
The next scene, which takes place on a rooftop evening party, had a percussion in the techno that made my heart beat uncontrollably. It was evocatively in accord with the unbridled passion and promiscuity in the air and the hullabaloo. One of the first audible phrases is the oft repeated “I’ll Screw you,” that seems to come from all over the place. It’s probably one of the most straightforward things said in this film before the characters babble pretentious, pseudo-philosophical sermons.
The protagonist and host of the party, Jep (Toni Servillo), doesn’t receive a super conspicuous introduction in the typical sense where they might get a close up, prominently featured in the framing, or if in an old movie, illuminating three point lighting. Rather he is among a large eclectic crowd of flashy dancing people. By Servillo’s poise and charisma, and the way the other characters flock around him we know he’s the protagonist.
In this colossally phony world, we cannot completely trust the characters as they are all sporting a carefully constructed persona. What is most interesting are the discrepancies that subtly emerge, especially in regards to Jep. Initially Jep, the one-time novelist and occasional journalist who’s still riding on great critical and popular success, seems bemused by the hype around him. Out of a bunch of pretentious and insecure hangers-on and self-promoters, he seems to be the voice of reason, the one who articulately pierces through the many exteriors of falsity and goes for the painful truth of each character.
After being chastised for his laissez-faire attitude by Stefania (Galatea Ranzi), an uptight workaholic feminist and socialist who made her fortune from a reality show she created and produced, Jep quietly remarks “We’re all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little,” which makes many of the characters really face themselves and get off their high horses. Emotionally, we discover that Jep lives the inverse of his wise words. In actuality, he is in the thick of this pretentious community, not by chance, but purely by a most calculated design. Instead of empathizing with Jep throughout the course of the film, he becomes less human and discernable and downright despicable the more time we spend in his psyche.
There’s a stark contrast between the wide Roman vistas and the ornate, magisterial interiors, both of which are overflowing with sheer pictorial beauty. Through the renaissance-esque lens of Luca Bigazzi’s camera, there is a hollow emptiness and gloominess behind the ostentatious façade that casts a dark shadow throughout the film and each scene.
Paolo Sorrentino’s screenplay and direction offer a perfect balance between intimate broody tragic scenes and sequences with massive crowds that feature absurd humor and have a totally unhinged feel. Unlike a film like say 8 ½, Beauty is more concretely sociological in its execution. Like several of the great European films, Beauty manages to ground its film around a central character but also delves into subplots and points of views of other characters without veering off course, creating texture and layers.
In countries like Italy that are under the political and economic sway of organized religion, filmmakers criticize the institution in entertaining, complicated, and abstract ways. In Beauty, the clergy hobnobs with this elite crowd and are just as crass, bragging about their wealth and material possessions. In one of the wackier scenes, a very young nun, in the midst of a waiting room full of grotesquely “remodeled” people, hands over oodles of cash to an assembly-line Botox doctor to preserve her youthful hands.
Like Fellini’s films, Beauty is populated with a cornucopia of colorful characters. In addition to Servillo, stand outs include Galatea Ranzi who gives an uptightness and compassion to her role. Anita Kravos is pathetic and ridiculous as the self-important and masochistic performance artist Talia Concept. Carlo Verdone makes his movie producer character humorously awkward and often out-of-place but also has some very tender moments of real isolation and despair. Sabrina Ferilli is at once outrageous and earthy as a forty-year-old exotic dancer who like Jep seems grounded but is highly damaged.
I remain in the theatre for all the credits out of keeping up my idiot film savant appearance, but it’s really worth it here. It’s an encore of Sorrentino’s tour-de-force moving camera shot of a lush river bank with a hauntingly beautiful choral song. It’s the perfect finish, one that is both lush and sparse.