By Travis Mullis
I first heard about The Great Beauty while watching the 86th Academy Awards back in March 2014, when it won an Oscar for best international feature film. I had recently been exposed to Italian director Federico Fellini for the first time. I was intoxicated by the maestro’s blend of surreal whimsy and real-world glitz and glamour, and here was a film that was being called the La Dolce Vita of the 21st century. In short order I went to YouTube to watch the trailer, then onto Rotten Tomatoes to read the reviews and finally to Amazon Prime to rent the film. My first viewing of The Great Beauty was the most profound cinematic experience of my life, until this past Friday when I was finally able to see The Great Beauty on the big screen at the Independent Picture House.
The film is ostensibly the tale of Jep Gambardella, a writer and journalist who has just turned 65 and lives the kind of bacchanalian lifestyle that has come to be associated with Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy of the early 2000s. Jep dresses impeccably, speaks impeccably and lives impeccably in a large, modern apartment that overlooks the Colosseum. He attends parties every night and can sleep with anyone he chooses, yet outside of a few semi-close drinking buddies and a dutiful housemaid, Jep is totally alone. He has no wife, no children and no family to speak of, and as we learn early on, the only person he ever truly loved has just died.
If the tale sounds well-trodden, well, in fact it is. The story of the wealthy, modern playboy with all the money in the world and nothing to show for it goes back to the first great American film, Citizen Kane. The things that make The Great Beauty a nearly perfect film in my estimation, and not just another rehash of a cliched theme, are the acting, the cinematography, the music, the scenery and, most of all, the writing and directing of Paulo Sorrentino.
Rome, the eternal city, is already so intoxicating it hardly needs any help from a film crew to make it look beautiful. Indeed, as Jep saunters through its streets, one feels an overpowering need to jump on a plane and head to the Italian capital as soon as possible. Toni Servillo plays Jep Gambardella so well that I have come to think of them as one intertwined person. The music is the final element that ties the picture together thematically and is a mashup of operatic vocals, modern electronic music and traditional film scoring, all of which work on your emotions as the sad reality of Jep’s life plays out on screen. I don’t want to spoil too much, but Jep’s search for the great beauty of the title is only half-fulfilled. The great beauty is life itself in all its messy contradictions. The great beauty isn’t out there somewhere waiting to be found and appreciated. It’s all around us. The great trick, as Jep prefers to call it, is in realizing the beauty of everyday life, from the mundane gossip sessions with drinking buddies, to the pretensions we all carry, to the absurdity of modern life.
As I sat in the dark last Friday and watched The Great Beauty for the first time on the big screen I was reminded of another type of trickery, the trickery of the cinematic experience. Films are made to be seen on the big screen, something that large segments of the population have failed to remember in the age of streaming. Though I loved The Great Beauty before, now that I have seen it as it was meant to be seen, I have an even deeper appreciation of its beauty. Cinema is, after all, just a trick. Images are projected onto a big screen in a dark room full of strangers, and for a couple of hours you’re transported to another reality. That’s the power of cinema. That’s the power of The Great Beauty.
Catch The Great Beauty before it leaves Thursday!