La Grande Bellezza (2013, Italy)

Fourth Wall rating: 9/10.

Paolo Sorrentino directs a love letter to Rome, in what is a highly ornamental cinematic triumph and a fascinating, if heavy handed, critique of la vita bella 

Director: Paolo Sorrentino | Writer: Paolo Sorrentino | Actors: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone & Sabrina Ferilli | Cinematographer: Luca Bigazzi

Jep Gambardella: We're all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little...don't you agree?

One sentence description: Man has lots of power and women but then has a 2/3-life crisis. 
One (long) sentence review: A long, gaudy yet philosophical, funny yet beautiful journey along Rome and its bored upper classes. 
Watch it if… You want beautiful photography. 
Don’t watch it if… You need films to have “proper”, coherent storylines. 
Best thing about the film… Rome.

It would be very easy to caricature La Grande Bellezza as a maelstrom of ennui, debauchery, weirdness, nudity, set pieces and noise. However, every bit of debauchery has a message, every shot of nudity has a nuance and every noisy scene follows quiet solitude. For although Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is ostensibly the lead, it becomes pretty obvious early on that Rome is the real star, with Italy the backdrop. Almost every shot contains a classic Roman location, as though this antiquity is all that's left. And yet, at the fringes of every shot is a slightly lonely old 'player' who realises he's missing something. 

The "plot", such as it is, goes like this: famous journalist/magazine grandee Jep reaches his 65th birthday, trying to unravel his sense of existential ennui, turning in vain to a would-be Pope for advice, having a platonic "affair" with a much younger woman (42) and generally going to parties all over Rome. We also get to see him have a wild, forgotten romance in his teens and hear about his (only) novel, written a long time ago.
A life well misspent.
While this is going on, we're treated to a whole host of mini-stories: a Mother Teresa-like nun aged 104 comes to the Vatican and is treated like a superstar, finishing by walking up the stairs of St. John's Church on her knees. Then there's the delights of a young girl (about 11) sobbingly yet brilliantly painting on an outdoors canvas to the admiration of an upper class dinner party, a Pope-to-be who can’t talk about anything other than cooking, a strip club where strippers crawl all over the place on their hands and knees and nobles from royal families past who now make a living by adding some class at parties for about €250/hour. 

This is a uniquely Italian film. Bollywood would've screwed up the philosophy, Hollywood can't do kitsch or weirdness properly and the Koreans would've made it too weird. Only the culture that produced 8 1/2 could've made this colourful, loud/quiet, scrotum-in-the-air vision of a thoroughly caricatured, shagged-out and debauched city.

A failing of LGB is that it appears to be a flabby set of anecdotes rather than a coherent, well-knit narrative. However, the pic's panache and easy charm compel you to simply go with it, if not for the script than for the stunning cinematography (Luca Bigazzi). I was somewhat reminded of Cloud Atlas, with its even more grandiose narrative sprawl (though not quite comparable in quality). Amongst all this, Sorrentino insists on telling us something about Italy, as Gambardella’s mobster-neighbour, upon being arrested by DIA Agents (Italian version of the FBI), says “I’m a hardworking man who…while you…enjoy with your friends, keeps this country going”. 

Then there's the deflating of upper class pretensions. For example, a performance artist whose party piece is to head-butt a railway bridge as an expression of her feelings about…something (a clear sideswipe at Marina Abramovic) is interviewed by Gambardella and speaks airily of “vibrations” that drive her performances. But when pressed, she admits to not knowing what this really means. 
Vada a bordo, cazzo!
Later in the film, Gambardella is forced, again, to go somewhere for reportage: the Costa Concordia disaster. We get literally 10 seconds of a look at the sorry little ship (was this FX?), and if ever there was a metaphor for the travails of the ‘bel paese’, it was the epic mismanagement, hubris and bad luck that led to the Concordia disaster. If ever a filmmaker wanted a simple image that implied all this for Italy, this was it. No points for subtlety. 

Another major theme is the decay of Italian/Roman society. All the significant characters in this film are 40+ and almost every shot of Rome in this film shows something made centuries, if not millennia, ago, from the Colosseum to the artefacts in the National Museum. This is perhaps Sorrentino's biggest misstep: heavy-handed metaphors implying that Italy has become old and devoid of any fresh ideas. One of the characters actually says “the problem with the youth now is that if they realise they’re smart, they leave for America or London, forgetting the support that got them there”. Although this diagnosis of a gerontocracy rings very true in Italy today, it is so baldly stated that it takes some of the mystique out of the exercise. Let us do some of the thinking, Paolo.

The-larger-than-life editor of Jep's magazine.
Finally, amongst the enduring mysteries of the film are the reasons for why Jep stopped writing after his first novel. He's wanted to write an ‘empty’ book, about nothing much at all (much like this film). Through short flashbacks to his youth, we see him as a young man, and then the old, jaded man he is today. Apparently, he had been looking for 'la grande bellezza' for inspiration and, although it took a quarter of a century, he found it in the end. In Rome, would you believe.


Similar/related movies: La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 ,Cloud Atlas

BONUS POINTS: Try out the superb soundtrack, particularly "I Lie" by Torino Vocalensemble, "My Heart's In The Highlands" by Else Torp and "Far L'Amore (Club Mix)" by Bob Sinclar & Raffaella Carra. But the whole soundtrack, really.

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