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J.A.A. Purves

La Grande Bellezza / The Great Beauty (2013)

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(A&F link to This Must Be the Place (2011).)

 

The Telegraph:

Jep thinks back on his life, which has also been the life of the city, and realises he has spent most of it searching on the rooftops and in the gutters for what he calls la grande bellezza – "the great beauty". What he actually finds is gangsterism, triviality, hypocrisy and decadence. We meet a well-respected cardinal, hotly tipped to be the next Pope, who has nothing to share but cookery tips. (In his defence, they sounded pretty good, and I did scribble down his advice on how best to pan-fry duck.) Later, a priest and a nun walk into a haute cuisine palace and order a bottle of vintage Cristal champagne. The sacred and profane smash into one another everywhere, as if Sorrentino is working some kind of metaphysical Large Hadron Collider. The soundtrack features some of the most stirring devotional music ever composed: Tavener’s The Lamb, Martynov’s Beatitudes; and also We No Speak Americano, as heard in The Inbetweeners Movie.

 

The Atlantic:

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's visually imaginative, very entertaining new film is essentially a variation on Fellini's La Dolce Vita, plunging us into the cruel, voluptuous world of Rome's media, artistic, and intellectual elites. Revolving around a novelist-turned journalist played by Toni Servillo (who looks like Italy's version of Joe Biden), the first hour and a half of The Great Beauty is a delight; Sorrentino's gliding camera snakes its way through lavish, champagne-soaked, techno-thumping parties (the film's opening sequence is a tour de force), and then slows down for quieter day-after scenes (mornings in bed with a new conquest, lunches with friends, meetings with the editor-in-chief, afternoon strolls) that echo with loneliness and regret. In the final half hour, the movie starts slipping into self-indulgence, with the director unnecessarily explaining things through dialogue and voiceover that his images have already evoked perfectly. Still, the film holds up as a vivid glimpse, both funny and deeply unsettling, of a Berlusconi-era Italy rotting below its luscious-looking surface.

 

The Guardian:

As always, Sorrentino has an architectural eye, his cameras panning over crumbling buildings, unclothed bodies and (most importantly) Servillo's face with enraptured awe. Céline, Proust, Sartre, Dostoevsky et al are invoked for both comic and philosophical purpose (you half-expect a cameo from Woody Allen) although dialogue is often abandoned in favour of music as the succession of tableaux vivants unfold. Ultimately, it all adds up to less than the sum of its parts, lacking the discipline of the superior Il Divo. But Servillo is an entrancingly mercurial presence upon whose reptilian smile an entire city appears to be founded.

 

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Jake Cole really, really dislikes it:
 

I'll write fuller thoughts elsewhere, but honestly, screw this indulgent, high-and-mighty POS, with its utterly empty style undone at every turn by how above it all Sorrentino wants everyone to know he is. Comparisons to Rossellini, Antonioni and Fellini seem to have the most superficial understanding of what those directors brought to their movies, as well as how invested they were in their work (even Antonioni), how willing they were to either implicate themselves in moral failure (Fellini) or to try and show, in vastly differing ways, how to find a new morality and existential position (Rossellini and Antonioni). Even Antonioni's ostensible remove serves to illustrate not the emptiness of the modern world but the inability of characters to recognize its beauty and its new methods of communication; THE GREAT BEAUTY sends its character on a journey to find that beauty, but at every turn it finds modern Italy reprehensible.

This is just the Marshall McLuhan scene of ANNIE HALL stretched to offensive length, with Servillo waltzing up to perfectly set-up targets before excoriating them at length—the scene in which he mercilessly tears apart a pretentious middle-aged Communist is little more than a distended, hyper-misogynistic riff on The Dude's "Walter, you're not even Jewish" from THE BIG LEBOWSKI. Last night, I could have watched this, which I had limited access to, or the copy of THE WORLD'S END I had just bought and thus have at my disposal whenever. I chose poorly; at least with THE WORLD'S END I would have been able to watch flashy camerawork that actually illuminated the interiority of the film's world and characters, instead of the maker's smug superiority. I've only seen IL DIVO besides this, but I'm struggling to think of a more overdetermined, self-satisfied filmmaker working today.

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If you accept Johnston's view that American Beauty is the quintessential Ecclesiastes film, this is the Italian equivalent.


A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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What's our rule on thread titles? Do we always retain the title in its original language? All the recent coverage I've seen on this movie uses the English translation.


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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What's our rule on thread titles? Do we always retain the title in its original language? All the recent coverage I've seen on this movie uses the English translation.

Do we have any sort of standardized posting rules anywhere? I don't think we do, but we might be able to use some. (One thing I've noticed is that in one of the transitions, we acquired labels (or tags) that now seem to work differently than they did before.)

For search purposes, I'll add the English title to the thread for now.

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I'm so glad I caught this before it leaves local theaters. It's a beautiful if exhausting film, and intensely cinematic. I'm not fully resolved on the film's theme -- I'm not sure what, exactly, it's saying -- but I find Darrel's review persuasive.


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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This just won Bafta's 'Best Foreign Language' category. I wonder if it could claim the Oscar as well? I would favour The Hunt (which Bafta nominated last year - it lost to Amour...) because it's a more gripping film and Oscar tends to favour the less artsy foreign nominees, e.g. when The Secret In Their Eyes beat White Ribbon. It will be interesting to see.

 

But yeah, it's a great film. Frustrating in some ways, but so beautiful and BIG and ambitious. Much better than any of the Best Picture nominees.

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I would agree with Darrel's take - this is definitely Ecclesiastes and absurdist existentialist territory.  Having just finished Irvin Yalom's masterful tome Existential Psychotherapy, in which he posits that the four great struggles are with Death, Freedom, Isolation, and Meaninglessness, I'd say this film tackles all four.  The stage is set perfectly in the opening scene, even before we meet Jep, when the Japanese tourist expires in front of the centuries-old fountain:  death meets beauty.

 

I believe the film is saying that there is no meaning to life, death, beauty, relationships, or organized religion (in Jep's words, "It's all a trick").  I reject the premise utterly, but holy smokes, how beautifully the notion is presented.  The combination of story, visual presentation, and music (the best film soundtrack I've heard in years) make this a movie to see on the big screen and my favorite new film of the new year.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

http://secularcinephile.blogspot.com

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I would agree with Darrel's take - this is definitely Ecclesiastes and absurdist existentialist territory.  Having just finished Irvin Yalom's masterful tome Existential Psychotherapy, in which he posits that the four great struggles are with Death, Freedom, Isolation, and Meaninglessness, I'd say this film tackles all four.  The stage is set perfectly in the opening scene, even before we meet Jep, when the Japanese tourist expires in front of the centuries-old fountain:  death meets beauty.

 

I believe the film is saying that there is no meaning to life, death, beauty, relationships, or organized religion (in Jep's words, "It's all a trick").  I reject the premise utterly, but holy smokes, how beautifully the notion is presented.  The combination of story, visual presentation, and music (the best film soundtrack I've heard in years) make this a movie to see on the big screen and my favorite new film of the new year.

Great post. 

 

It is indeed a film which seems to offer no hope of meaning in life, but paradoxically it also manages to achieve such transcendence in its artistry that I could never find it 'hopeless' or depressing.

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Thanks - I totally agree, Anodos; I'm raring to see the film again, before it disappears from local screens.  The film had a number of scenes (the red naked dude, for one) that were engaging yet utterly puzzling, and I'm curious to see if they make more sense with another viewing.  A part of me suspects not - in that regard, this film may be the 'Holy Motors' of 2013.

 

As I've pondered this film off and on today, it made me think, too, of Erickson's stages of development.  His last two life stages, for those not familiar, are generativity vs. stagnation and ego integrity vs. despair, and Jep's character is being immersed into both of these conflicts with his 65th birthday and confrontation with mortality, and he's not emerging peaceful and content.  In his mind, the best things of life happened in his 20's, and it's all been downhill since.

 

I love, too, how Jep is trying and failing to maintain his ironic detachment.  In the funeral scene, when he offers his rehearsed condolences to the grieving mother, I think he's surprised at the sense of bereftness that overcomes him.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

http://secularcinephile.blogspot.com

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Wow. This opens tomorrow at the $3 theater in my neighborhood. They have new digital projectors and big screens. And I thought I'd missed my opportunity.


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

"Forget it, Jake. It's Funkytown."    

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You get movies like this one at your discount theater? Man, I remember when I worked in downtown D.C. and would walk to Georgetown's Foundry theater -- a 6- or 7-screen multiplex on the lower level of an office building that showed second-run arthouse fare for, I think, $2 per ticket. That was in the late 1990s. I saw some great flicks there and never fussed about how shoeboxy the theaters were.

 

Looking forward to your reaction, Jeffrey. One tip: Don't be late. The opening sequence, which runs several minutes, is killer.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Thanks for the tip. Lately, I've been gambling with my arrival time in order to avoid trailers.

 

Yes, the Crest Cinemas is amazing. It gets a great mix of mainstream and art films.


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

"Forget it, Jake. It's Funkytown."    

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Jake Cole really, really dislikes it:

 

... This is just the Marshall McLuhan scene of ANNIE HALL stretched to offensive length, with Servillo waltzing up to perfectly set-up targets before excoriating them at length—the scene in which he mercilessly tears apart a pretentious middle-aged Communist is little more than a distended, hyper-misogynistic riff on The Dude's "Walter, you're not even Jewish" from THE BIG LEBOWSKI. 

 

As I watched this scene, I realized what movie this most reminds me of. For all of its virtuosic Tree of Life-style cinematography and eagerness to beat Fellini at his own game, this movie is really just Mike Leigh's Naked, except that this time the sadistic philosopher is a celebrated, wealthy writer who gets any woman he wants and is set up to look spectacular as he tears people apart. When he reaches the suburbs of true love, he gets wistful and then veers right back into cynicism, deconstructing everything in sight.

 

Yes, he's self-aware and self-loathing, like Johnny in Naked, but Mike Leigh saw that the possibilities of real love we alive out there in more than just two young people finding each other and kissing 24 hours a day. He saw it in tenderness and generosity... even generosity rejected, generosity that demands humility in order to be accepted. Johnny is offered grace and, realizing it means surrendering his masterful hatred, he recoils and runs away. Here, the only real grace I see in Jep's life story — accepted or rejected — is some kind of ideal, virginal, erotic encounter that, once enjoyed, can only be recalled sadly in waves of heavy-hearted nostalgia.

 

Still, a big-screen must see for the imagery which, I'm inclined to say on a first viewing, turns out to be fighting Sorrentino's attitude every step of the way. In the end, I don't think he removes himself from Jep to see him as a tragically delusional figure. I think he's sinking with Jep, oblivious to what the light all around him is suggesting.


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

"Forget it, Jake. It's Funkytown."    

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By the way, I would have found the last hour more compelling if The Saint hadn't looked like a leftover Muppet from The Dark Crystal. Why couldn't they have let her look like a human being? She was so made up to look crusty that I kept waiting to find out she was digitally animated like that entirely unconvincing giraffe.


 

I love, too, how Jep is trying and failing to maintain his ironic detachment.  In the funeral scene, when he offers his rehearsed condolences to the grieving mother, I think he's surprised at the sense of bereftness that overcomes him.

 

Oh, I didn't take that "bereftness" as genuine at all. I took it as cruelty, showing up the family's grief to prove his point. His character is like a feature-length performance of "Silencio" from Mulholland Drive. Even at his most achingly sincere, I feel as if he's trying to pull one over on me.


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

"Forget it, Jake. It's Funkytown."    

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Hmm, I'm unconvinced by your read of the funeral scene, but then again, my Truffaut sig quote may be relevant here.  I'm hoping to see this for a second time next weekend, so maybe that will clarify things.

 

Regarding the decrepit Mother Teresa stand-in, I suspect she's so ridiculously frail and feeble to symbolize Sorrentino's take on the Church as such, on its last legs and living off its faded glory.  As all of Rome would seem to be:  the smartest people in the city are the tourists, and the art and architecture on sumptuous display are centuries-old, while the current work (the naked performance artist, for instance) is banal dreck. 

Edited by Andrew

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

http://secularcinephile.blogspot.com

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Hmm, I'm unconvinced by your read of the funeral scene, but then again, my Truffaut sig quote may be relevant here.  I'm hoping to see this for a second time next weekend, so maybe that will clarify things.

 

Regarding the decrepit Mother Teresa stand-in, I suspect she's so ridiculously frail and feeble to symbolize Sorrentino's take on the Church as such, on its last legs and living off its faded glory.  As all of Rome would seem to be:  the smartest people in the city are the tourists, and the art and architecture on sumptuous display is centuries-old, while the current work (the naked performance artist, for instance) is banal dreck. 

 

I admit that it's an ambiguous scene, but note that he waits until he's stepped into a spotlight to start breaking down.

 

And yes, I totally agree with your interpretation of The Saint's fragility and decrepitude. But I just found her Tales From the Crypt appearance to be extreme in a way that didn't fit with a lot of the film. 

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

"Forget it, Jake. It's Funkytown."    

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Good interview with the director, who sheds light on his own interpretation of the story:

 

What do you think the movie is trying to say?

 

Anything. Too many things. The movie is trying to say that everybody can find a form of beauty in all the moments of his life and also in the moments where there is the vulgarity, the squalor. If you try to go out for a moment in your life, you can see the beauty everywhere in your own life.

 

Talk about the great scene where the woman challenges the journalist about writing a second book and he destroys her.

 

It's an uncomfortable scene, where everyone is trying to use their words to fight against hypocrisy without really understanding that hypocrisy is something that we need in order to live together.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I made sure to write out my Letterboxd review before reading Sicinski's piece, because I'm so often persuaded by him, and I wanted to be sure my first-impression observations were my own.
 
Turns out that Sicinski had similar problems with the film, and communicates them so much more eloquently and concisely than I did. But he comes down much harsher on the film:
 

... The story of washed-up writer and professional partier and gadfly Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), The Great Beauty is also an alleged condemnation of the decadence of Rome and its high society. But inasmuch as it approaches coherence at all (and indeed, parts of this film are “elliptical” to the point of incompetence), Jep is a sexist, classist fool whose point of view Sorrentino never bothers to problematize.
 
We can tell he is an unreliable enough narrator. But The Great Beauty clearly wants us to believe that Jep’s disaffection is a perfectly logical response to the rubbish of modern life, and that his sudden emotional breakthroughs are reason enough to hold him in higher esteem than the phonies surrounding him. Sorrentino’s ultimate point seems to be that contemporary Italy has become a kind ofSpring Breakers for the geriatric set, and only the man callow enough to recognize how pathetic it all is deserves our respect. (Also, he prefers classical statuary to performance art, so clearly he’s our designated crap-cutter.) What nonsense.

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

"Forget it, Jake. It's Funkytown."    

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!!! Very cool post, Andrew -- although can you say some more about the piece? I'm reacting, of course, to the title, but don't know anything about the piece.


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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