Paolo Sorrentino returns to Italy or, more specifically, Rome following This Must Be The Place, his US-Irish set film with Sean Penn. I must admit that I have only seen Il divo, his critically lauded film about ex-Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, which, for me, was an overrated film that attempted to show the self-indulgent and vacuous life of Andreotti whilst being itself self-indulgent and vacuous. The Great Beauty is his latest film and the crane and tracking shots and musical montages remain, but is there a point this time?
If Il divo is Sorrentino’s Goodfellas, then The Great Beauty is very obviously – too obviously – Sorrentino’s La dolce vita. Toni Servillo again takes the lead, playing Jep Gambardella, a once great writer whose life of near endless hedonism has done for his writing career. He makes ends meet by writing puff pieces for a magazine. The film begins (after a long, pointless sequence wandering around the Janiculum Hill) with his 65th birthday, during which Jep is the victim of an existential funk. Why did he never write a second novel? Why did he stop writing? And where has that youthful idealism that inspired his much loved first novel gone? Jep searches for fulfilment, maybe even love, and goes on an odyssey through a surrealist Rome packed full of characters, incidents and memories.
The Great Beauty is unapologetically close to Fellini’s great films of the 1960s (as well as a hint here and there of Roma), but instead of making a gesture or a tribute, the film is stuck on them. It doesn’t really say or do anything that isn’t done in La dolce vita or 8 ½, put together with a style that recalls both Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick and a sense of humour that evokes the Coen brothers and Pedro Almodóvar on a lazy day. Quirky and cinematic but empty – it refers to emotions without bothering to try for drama. We know a character is sad, because Sorrentino plays loud, sad music over the scene. One character that we have been encouraged to laugh at throughout is suddenly given a tracking shot to melancholic music and a tragic backstory, and then never seen again. It is a film of bits and pieces, some aiming for comedy and some aiming for deep existential drama, all edited together with a MTV/ ADD aesthetic.
All of the themes of La dolce vita are lifted – the boredom of hedonism, the loss of innocence, the inability of recapture the creative spark, unfulfilling relationships and the feeling of disappointment once the night is over. Sorrentino updates the setting but he does not go further or deeper, often recreating moments from the original film in a slightly different register – a wander through an old building at night, the protagonist getting sidetracked by a young girl who gives him an ambiguous smile, a trip to the Trevi Fountain, a strip tease. The party sequences remain vacuous and freakishly carnivalesque though Sorrentino likes his camera to get involved in the debauchery and then comment on it later. The overriding idea is one of shallowness – the incidents are shallow, the characters are shallow – and this is mirrored by the medium. There is a lot of stuff about tricks but it doesn’t really go anywhere, or if it did, I couldn’t be bothered to think about it. A quirky sensibility and an oh-so bizarre sense of humour help to make the whole thing seem even more pointless. The strongest impression I got out of it was a feeling of being trapped; thinking, an hour in, “There’s another bloody eighty minutes.” Since it is about little and it is 140 minutes long, it is also tediously repetitive.
The worst thing about the film, however, is that it is pretentious. We laugh at people who talk about Proust, Dostoevsky and Pirandello because the film encourages us to think that these oafish characters have never read them. Meanwhile the camera lingers on an art exhibit long enough to telegraph that while its characters might not appreciate this sort of thing, it certainly does. The ending is typically, blandly unresolved and ambiguous. It is a film that mocks, but it does not suggest anything lest it be mocked itself. It muses on the waste and the self-indulgence of the 1% while it flaunts its budget and giving its party sequences as much vibrancy as possible.
The Great Beauty is often beautifully photographed, but it is horribly dull and irritatingly pretentious. It doesn’t say anything, relying instead on its soundtrack to suggest mood. It encourages us to laugh at these horrible, vacuous people but it is the kind of film that they would love – bright, flashy, full of incident with a few high art references here and there to remind them they have brains.