The Great Beauty


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 April


Romulus founds Rome, 753BC

On this day in 753BC, one of the great capitals of world civilisation was founded, or so the story goes. Rome, city of the Caesars, was founded by Romulus, who along with Remus was one of the twin sons of Rhea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa (present day Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope has his summer residence). The father of the twins was either Mars, the god of war, or possibly Hercules, the demi-god son of Zeus. Either way, Rhea Silvia’s sons become problematical for her once Numitor’s brother Amulius seizes power from Numitor, and Romulus and Remus end up abandoned on the banks of the River Tiber, where they are famously suckled by a wolf, until a shepherd finds them and rears them. According to this worldview, nobility passing along bloodlines, so the brothers are natural leaders and, once they discover the truth of their origin, they kill the man who abandoned them and set about founding a city of their own. The twins quarrel over the precise location of this new city and, heads being hot, Remus ends up dead. Romulus names the city after himself. This foundational myth, of Romulus and Remus, has always had to co-exist with another – that the city was founded by descendants of Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan war. Recent archaeological evidence suggests the city may be older than either story implies.




The Great Beauty (2013, dir: Paolo Sorrentino)

La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s 1960 film which The Great Beauty bookends, starts with the sight of a giant statue of Jesus being airlifted out of Rome. Message: godlessness. The Great Beauty starts with the firing of a cannon. Message: boom. Director Paolo Sorrentino then drops us into a rooftop party, the music pounding, the beautiful women dancing, buff guys strutting, people of all ages, heights, colours and degrees of comeliness. And all dressed fabulously, all glamorous, all moisturised. It’s a brilliantly co-ordinated display of moneyed, honeyed Roman excess set to a pumping Euro-house beat. And in the middle of it all, grinning like a man who has it all, is Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella. This is Gambardella’s 65th birthday party and this is his night. He’s still virile enough to enjoy life, with enough money to paper over any cracks that time has caused. Smug.
The Great Beauty doesn’t make specific reference to La Dolce Vita, but in Fellini’s earlier film we have followed Marcello Mastroianni as a novelist who has become a celebrity journalist and lost his soul in the process. In The Great Beauty, Gambardella, we are told, is a novelist who has spent a lifetime as a journalist. He has never written a second book to build on the promise of the first. And over the two hours or so of Sorrentino’s film, we see why – the women, the soirees, the guiltless sex, the decadent art, the exquisite clothes and the endless gossip. There are even Botox evenings, when the wealthy line up to have evidence of their years injected away. I’ve been led astray by all this, he says in so many words to his cleaner, pretty much the only person Jep is honest with. And then suddenly he is at the funeral of a young man who really shouldn’t have died young. He’s helping carry his casket, in fact, when the emotional logjam breaks and he realises… actually we’re not quite sure what he realises. Perhaps that he’s been a fool. Perhaps that he just has enough time and energy left to work on something more meaningful than entertainment. In flashback we see young Jep – he looks remarkably like Mastroianni – and a lost love. Is she the Great Beauty of the title. Is Rome? Or is la grande bellezza like la dolce vita, a lifestyle so attractive that it has turned the heads of even the clergy?
Like the Devil giving Christ the “all this could be yours” tour while tempting him in the desert, Sorrentino doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing us the garden of earthly delights. This really is one of the most sumptuous films ever made, with every shot a display of deliberate cinematic excess. Why move when you can glide? Why track when you can whoosh into the air first? Even the Steadicam shots are balletic. The music, too, is gorgeous, a mix of the sacred (Tavener, Pärt, David Lang) and the profane (Bob Sinclar and Raffaella Carrà’s pumping Far l’Amore), and it does sonically what Servillo and Sorrentino are offering us on the screen – the sight a doomed man glimpsing redemption, as they did in One Man Up, The Consequences of Love and even to a certain extent in Il Divo. But never like this. If you haven’t seen it, prepare to be amazed.



Why Watch?


  • Winner of the 2014 Oscar for best foreign language movie
  • The latest fruit of director Sorrentino and actor Servillo’s collaboration
  • Luca Bigazzi’s breathtaking cinematography
  • The soundtrack – in particular David Lang’s choral piece I Lie


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Great Beauty aka La Grande Bellezza – at Amazon





4 thoughts on “The Great Beauty”

  1. This movie's title means "The Big Beauty", and the story is set in Rome. Of course, the city is prominently featured, so much and so long that it makes you think that "Rome" could be probably credited among the actors, at least for a supporting role, as "herself". But buyer beware (or, to appropriately use the Latin, Caveat Emptor): this is not a film about the beauty of the immortal city. In a nutshell, I would say that this movie is about the constant research of beauty and meaning in life by an aging intellectual named Jep. I am sure I won't give away too much if I say that, eventually, he will became aware that the beauty in his life is not in Rome – heck, it's not even in the present: poor Jep has been searching for so long in the wrong place, and in the wrong time.

    Somebody could be annoyed by the fact that nobody in the movie seems never to do any kind of work at all — curiously enough, the only self-proclaimed hardworking man happens to be a very seriously-looking international criminal! But for most of the other characters, money looks more like a cause, than a consequence of life. Without the restraints of needs, left with no practical excuses for not being happy, they still accomplish somehow the no small feat of spoiling their lives with various forms of suffering and pain.

    The story is wonderfully told both by images and dialogues. It takes some kind of "magic realism" turn towards the end – but that's balanced by the steadily cynic tone of the stream of consciousness coming out from Jep, wandering around the city like Marlowe in Los Angeles. Paolo Sorrentino is a writer, too: he has written a couple of enjoyable books starring a character very similar to the one depicted in the movie, a cold bastard bon vivant with a surprisingly soft heart. Mr. Toni Servillo provides flesh, and bone, and looks, and wit for this character. Just another major performance from the greatest Italian living actor: at the end of the movie it leaves into the audience the clear idea to have actually known a real person, not just a fictional one. The whole supporting cast is great, and very well-picked. A special mention goes to Sabrina Ferilli and Carlo Verdone, two very famous actors in Italy, shining here in two supporting roles where both of them display their undisputed talent.

  2. Italian cinema is, at last, on a roll again. Perhaps not in the same way as when Rossellini, Visconti, Fellini and De Sica were batting masterpiece after masterpiece into the arena but maybe more prodigiously than at any time since the young Olmi and young Bertolucci were setting the screen alight. In recent years we have had Michelangelo Frammartino's "Le Quattro Volte", Gianni De Gregorio's sublimely gentle comedies "Mid-August Lunch" and "The Salt of Life" and, perhaps best of all, the films of Paolo Sorrentino whose "The Consequences of Love", "The Family Friend" and "Il Divo" were highly original and sufficiently off-the-wall to invite comparisons with Fellini. His one venture into English-language cinema, "This Must be the Place", met with a largely hostile reception from critics who accused him of being self-indulgent but I found the film to be gorgeous and quirky and just what I would have expected from so idiosyncratic a talent. And now we have "The Great Beauty", a return to Italy and a return to, what his critics might see as, earlier form.

    This film, too, has been compared to Fellini which is entirely appropriate as this is a "La Dolce Vita" for the 21st century. You can even imagine the film's central character, Jeb, as Marcello, older if hardly wiser and for Sorrentino nothing much has changed. But if this is Sorrentino in Fellini mode it's just as close to the beauty and spectacle of "Amarcord" or, more appropriately, "Juliet of the Spirits". Once again the lead is taken by Toni Servillo, who was Sorrentino's Andreotti in "Il Divo" and once again he confirms his position as one of the cinema's finest actors, heading a truly superb ensemble cast.

    As in "La Dolce Vita" there is no real 'story' but rather a series of episodes in the life of Jeb in the days following his 65th birthday, (his birthday party is the first of the film's many great sequences). If there is a theme it's Jeb's increasing disillusionment with the lifestyle he has associated himself with over the years, a lifestyle he is very reluctant to give up, no matter how pragmatically he views it. He is a man who has had many women but no real relationship to speak of, (the early love of his life married someone else). He meets the daughter of an old friend, a 42 year old stripper with a drug habit, and they strike up a relationship of sorts though when they go to bed together he is happy when they don't have sex. He gets sustenance from his friends although he can be cutting and abrasive in their presence. It seems as it is they, and not money or power, which keeps him going.

    This is a magnificent movie, the kind of film that you know is being composed, frame by gorgeous frame, by a master film-maker. It is a breathtaking melange of sound and images, of great performances and superlative dialogue that draws you in and holds you from its first shot to its last. Some directors open their films with great tracking shots but Sorrentino saves his to the end, up, over and under the bridges of the Tiber as the final credits roll. Don't leave the cinema to the very last second.

  3. This film is a modern masterpiece of Cinema. Luca Bigazzi's cinematography is beautiful, with elegant tracking shots of Rome that draw the viewer into the loveliness of Jep's world (even if age and experience seems to have robbed him of the ability to feel and see this great beauty himself).

    The enchanting score of choral works by David Lang (I Lie), Vladimir Martynov (The Beatitudes), John Tavener (The Lamb) and Arvo Part (My Heart is in the Highlands) give depth to the wonderful images of Rome. This haunting soundtrack replaces the need for dialogue and adds intensity to Servillo's melancholic performance.

    Servillo's acting is superb from his moments of dry humour to the heartbreaking intensity of those feelings he cannot quite hold on to.

    La Grande Bellezza gives a window into Roman life that is probably only fully understood by a fellow Roman. However all can appreciate the aesthetic pleasure of Sorrentino's Rome and the bittersweet meanderings of its characters.

    This is a cinema of the highest order, imbued with elegance & style. For the viewer it is like swimming in honey. Grazie Signore Sorrentino.

  4. Deep and elegant mental decadence in nowadays Rome. I did love so much this film, it reminds me some old classic Italian movies. Watching the movie I thought about Marcello Mastroianni, it could have been the perfect actor for this film if this was his movies era. But do not misunderstand me, Toni Servillo is in my opinion the best actor for this movie. Locations are decadent and superb. What I liked so much about this movie is also the rhythm, the pauses and all the surrounding characters that give sense to the whole decadent plot. When the movie ended, I and other people stood up and watched the screen silently. This is a movie that lasts in your mind for a long time. As sadness and emptiness are perfectly mixed in the main character with poetry and sincere joie di vivre, all surrounded with astonishing and unusual views of Rome.

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