If you see nothing else all year, go and see this.
A frantic woman rushes through Bramante’s ‘Temptietto’, calling the name of her missing daughter. A nun is treated to a discount at an exclusive botox party. There is a giraffe in Caracalla’s Baths. All the while Rome’s bourgeoisie dance a grotesque conga towards the closing scene.
The pair who brought us ‘Il Divo’ in 2008 have created another masterpiece with Paolo Sorrentino in the driver’s seat. Leading man Toni Servillo is our Gatsby, aspiring (by his own admission) to become the ‘King’ of the upper-classes. It can’t be by accident that his apartment overlooks Nero’s swimming pool, one pleasure-palace in lieu of another – there is a timelessness to hedonism.
That is not to say that either the film or its conflicted hero take themselves too seriously – Jep Gambardelli’s dry misanthropy provides refreshing relief from the opulent parties he throws and the self-styled Abramović he is asked to interview. Even religiosity at the mothership of the Catholic church is a tongue-in-cheek affair.
Nothing is ever as it seems. Sorrentino’s ‘Berlusconi Era’ sees adults play as children, desperately clinging to their youth while the faces of children are imbued with maturity beyond their years. How are we to feel about one little girl’s forced tantrum-on-canvas? What becomes of tortured stripper Ramona, Jep’s unlikely love-interest? Perhaps these things are unimportant.
Yet in this world of ‘movers and shakers’ it is Rome which takes centre stage. Far from being the main subject of that ‘Great Beauty’ which gives the film its title, there is a reassuring permanence to the city – 16th Century Bramante and 2nd Century AD Rome re-appropriated for 21st Century use. Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography treats us to sweepingly luscious shots of cultural landmarks while Raphael’s candle-lit Fornarina emerges alluringly from the shadows, the face of the Dying Gaul betraying an emotional depth alien to the partying hoards. The works of art are simultaneously allegorical and beyond allegory – surely not a little contribution to the overall ‘Beauty’ of the film.
If ‘La Grande Bellezza’ is Rome in decline then Lele Marchitelli provides a worthy Swan Song punctuated by Arvo Pärt’s chilling rendering of ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’. With Vladimir Martynov’s ‘Beatitudes’ the narrative soars. The film is a rich tapestry of sights and sounds, mesmerizingly unapologetic while allowing the audience freedom to take from it whatever ‘Beauty’ they can find,
A final piece of advice: follow the film until the screen goes black. The closing shot ensures that the film, and its soundtrack, will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Sorrentino, ‘La Grande Bellazza’ promotional still