La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)

It’s a grand theme Paolo Sorrentino pursues in this follow-up to his Sean Penn-starring 2012 film This Must Be The Place. But ambition counts for little without the ability to translate big ideas into big emotions and The Great Beauty, for its ambling pace and smug posturing, fails to deliver anything near the quality or insight of the films it so freely hawks its style from.

Many comparisons have been made between this film and Federico Fellini’s 1960 La Dolce Vita and it’s obvious why. Toni Servillo’s Jep Gambardella is an art critic and writer, lost in the decadence of modern day Rome. He is a direct descendant of Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita, the crucial difference being that Marcello ends his pursuit for beauty and self-worth on the beach with a monstrous fish caught in a net, whereas Sorrentino condescends to imply that he knows what great beauty actually is (spoiler: it’s a girl).

Sorrentino’s directorial style is completely obnoxious. The camera swoops and glides around actors and buildings like an intoxicated bat tied to a bungee cord that only sits still for thirty seconds once it’s exhausted itself in its attempt to dance around the subject it’s dumbly aiming for, and tries through opacity and materialism to suggest it doesn’t know. This has the effect of making Rome feel more like a movie set than a city, whereas La Dolce Vita pulsated with life even when it showed the emptiness of the kind of lives it represented.

Like the Fellini film The Great Beauty is told in an episodic manner, so even the more tiresome moments do give way from time to time to some scenes of interest. Its ending however is a pure mess, consisting of some symbolic things like computer generated flamingos flying away and a 100-year old nun climbing a staircase on her knees. As a whole the film and its many scenes don’t add up to any thought, abstract or otherwise, that you can ever land on and think “yes, that is The Great Beauty”.

It isn’t completely unwatchable but about 100 minutes in when you’re quite certain there’s no overall point to be gleaned from the film that last 40 does drag. Where it fails is in the fact that a film about a man’s search for beauty (a man twenty years older than the director) is supposedly known by the director from the beginning. It is an artist’s search for beauty we see on the screen, but the man behind the film is not a searcher nor is he much of an artist.

Stephen Murphy

Released in selected cinemas from 06 September 2013. Watch the trailer now on MEG.ie.

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