Sunday, March 9, 2014

Film Review: The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)

Copyright: Medusa Film
One thing really alienated me from this film. Its main character Jep Gambardella, an old and bitter journalist working for an art magazine, is lost in the world of Rome’s high society. He is 65 years old, but he lives the lifestyle of a young playboy, constantly being surrounded by women, parties and exciting performance arts he professionally follows. But the film presents him as a burnt out guy how suddenly becomes interested in reflection about his current affair.

I was left wondering where are all those decades that we didn’t see Jep? The years he spent doing nothing but having fun or sleeping it off are nowhere to be found, and still we are subtly informed that he isn’t happy or tranquil. At the same time, he isn’t openly desperate or depressed. He lingers on and on, revisiting his former friend and doing his best to keep it interesting. All the decisions he made that added to his present state are invisible, and we are left only with reflects of his inner state that can be seen in many passing situations.

In one of those, he observes a nun playing with children, and gets almost shockingly sad and agitated. This maneuver is intriguing on a shallow glance, but after a better look, I realized that the symbolism is too broad. It can mean anything, and the reference to that situation are numerous – Jep thinks about his childhood, one of his old lovers, or the simplicity of innocence. It doesn’t matter, because he isn’t on a journey in this film. He just is, and wonders about in an abstract way, and isn’t frustrated when he fails to find any answers.

The city of Rome, where the director Paolo Sorrentino based Jep and his contemplation is very grandiose and ancient. Its streets echo with Jep’s footsteps and it fountains murmur while he walks by. If this was a postcard of a city, it would be very appealing, but add people to it and it becomes just an expensive stage, better fit for an intro scene of a Bourn movie – all the glamour and style beg to be given meaning, but it’s a drama about a lost man who doesn’t feel lost and whose bursts of anguish or pain last until the next cigarette.

If anything, the movie transmitted the notion that we still are a hopelessly pack oriented animal, and that Jep needs other people all the time, only in different roles. His pack, no matter how bothersome or annoying it becomes, still is better than the feeling of being alone, even in such a fabulous place. But Sorrentino doesn’t explore this notion, so it’s possible that it got thrown into the mash along with everything else.

The style and the cinematography may be overpowering, but all emotions that are emitted by this film are transient, be it humor, sadness or pity. It reminded me of a person who stands on a busy train station and watches other people going through it, seeing a lot, but still seeing just snippets and fragments of stories. The Great Beauty feels like a film that could be rearranged in any imaginable way and still regain everything it has now.

I don’t mean this in the narrative sense, and respects Sorrentino wish to make it an omnibus of small happening without a clear linear purpose, choosing generally appealing fog over far more riskier form, where Jep would be a much more defined figure. The problem for me is the idea that the emotions got embedded in this foggy story, and dispersed in a beautiful but utterly uninventive and static film.