J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty

Writers write, that’s what they do.  Jep Gambardella still qualifies, just barely.  After the publication of his acclaimed first novel, he chose to spend the rest of his career penning Vanity Fair-style celebrity profiles.  It was much easier, but far less satisfying. Gambardella belatedly realizes this holds true for all aspects of his life in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (trailer here), Italy’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which opens this Friday in New York.

It is Garbardella’s sixty-fifth birthday and his social circle is ready to party like they are really his friends.  The magazine writer is in his element.  However, he turns uncharacteristically pensive when he learns his great lost lover has passed away, perhaps still harboring undiminished feelings for him.  Hoping to experience a similar passion, Gambardella commences a relationship with Ramona, the daughter of his old strip-club owner crony, who still works in the family business at the impressive age of forty-two.  Perhaps there is some substance to their affair, but at the very least, her presence on his arm thoroughly scandalizes Rome’s high society.

A rapturous viewing experience, Great Beauty must be the most elegant looking and sounding film since Luca Guadagnino’s I am Love.  Frankly, it takes considerable guts to make a film that so perilously invites comparison to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but Sorrentino has boldly gone there nonetheless.  He masterfully maintains a mood that is palpably seductive and elegiac.  Indeed, Great Beauty is likely to induce a midlife crisis in viewers, regardless of their age or accomplishments.  Yet, it is an elusive cinematic statement that slips through your fingers whenever you try to analyze it.

Sorrentino’s frequent collaborator Toni Servillo gives the career performance of an accomplished career as Gambardella.  Wonderfully urbane and devilishly witty, he nonetheless acutely expresses Gambardella’s each and every regret. This is Academy Award caliber work, but Great Beauty is so refined and mature it will probably be lucky just to make the foreign language cut.

Of course, Servillo is not laboring alone.  As Ramona, Sabrina Ferilli’s earthy vulnerability perfectly complements Servillo’s cerebral angst, while the manic melancholy of Carlo Vendone as Gambardella’s writer-associate further heightens the Fellini-esque vibe, whereas Giovanna Vignola is simply incomparable as his acerbic editor, the diminutive Dadana.

Clearly, nobody shoots statuary and architectural edifices like cinematographer Luca Bigazzi.  Similarly, the themes composed by Lele Marchitelli, as well as several shrewdly licensed selections from the likes of Arvo Pärt, provide a rich feast for the ears.  Altogether, Great Beauty is a powerful and assured film on every level.  Very highly recommended (especially to Academy members), it opens this Friday (11/15) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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