The Italian film industry is known for producing some of the most memorable films ever made over the last 65 years. Some of their most iconic directors like Fellini, Antonioio, Visconti, Rossellini, and De Sica, along with actors, Anna Mangnani, Giuletta Masina, Sophia Lauren, Marcello Mastroianni, and Gina Lollobrigida, have graced the world’s silver screens.
In the Italian film “The Great Beauty”, which screened at the just concluded Palm Springs International Film Festival, young Italian director Paolo Sorrentino set out to pay homage to his great predecessors and the country that inspired their work. Rome is one of the great cities of the world and it’s art, sculpture, architecture and splendor are nonpareil.
But the send-up comedy satire fell short of writer/director Sorrentino and co writer Umberto Contarello’s goal. Yes, the visuals are indeed Fellini-like with scenes of hedonism and excess reminiscent of “La Dolce Vida”, along with the obscurity of an Antonioio narrative script. However, there is a time limit involved for keeping the viewer engaged. The opening disco music-driven sequence runs 12 minutes of “the beautiful people” dancing, drinking, and mugging for the camera. We got the vulgarity and a taste of Sorrentino’s spoof of their lifestyle in the first two minutes.
The narrative thread of the film then is left to our “tour guide” Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who as one-novel writer and social/celebrity gadfly, apparently knows everyone, and I mean everyone, worth knowing in Roman society. And they all parade in fron of Sorretino’s camera. There is even a reference to that old gag-joke about The Pope (we recognize Jep, but who’s the guy, in white, he’s standing next to on the papal balcony).
Servillo’s Gambardella is an engaging, charming, and totally cynical creature who represents the best and the worst of Italian culture. In my recollection of Italian films from the 40’s to the present day, directors were always obsessed with breasts; the bigger, the better. Apparently, that obsession is still alive and well. In the last scene of the movie Jep is reminiscing about his first love. A comely young lass is standing next to the sea, and just before she walks away, she whispers to Jep, “there is something I want to show you”, and with that, she bares her young breasts for Jep. It’s the stuff that young 12 and 14 year-old boys dream about.
Forget the weak story, the real treasure of “The Great Beauty” is in the stunning visuals from Production Designer Stefania Cella and the camerawork of Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, and his lighting crew. They provide a “tour” of the great works of art very few visitors to Rome get to see. On this aspect alone, the film is worth seeing. Also, I suspect that this was one film everyone in the Italian movie industry wanted to be in. The cast peppered with former actors and actresses made it a must see movie for local consumption. For me it failed. I just found it pretentious and overly long.