This week I saw La grande bellezza (2013) at the Barbican, and thoroughly enjoyed it. As seemingly every review has remarked, it is deeply reminiscent of Fellini. Although it would be difficult to ignore Fellini as the film’s spiritual forebear and a major influence, Sorrentino’s film feels novel, never derivative. It falls somewhere between La dolce vita (1960) and Holy Motors (2012), but it’s more uplifting than either.
Like Fellini and Antonioni in the ’60s, Sorrentino is exploring the excesses and ennui of the European upper classes who, too rich to work, while away their time on frivolous, pretentious, and pointless endeavours. But unlike Fellini’s La dolce vita or Antonioni’s La notte (1961), it foregoes the sense of existential desolation. For the most part the characters are not only fully aware of their absurd privilege (and thus seem slightly less solipsistic, if no less selfish), but they also seem to more consciously choose dissolution, so rather than falling into it out of desperation, they even enjoy it a bit. Thus the soul-searching is offset by energetic hedonism, and, if it makes the film less profound, it also makes it more engaging and satisfying to watch. That’s not to say that it’s never sad—alienation, dissatisfaction, and meaninglessness remain at the heart of the exploration—it’s just that this impulse never turns dreary or hopeless.
It’s called The Great Beauty for a reason, for it is staggeringly beautiful. It should certainly be seen on the big screen. Like Fellini’s best it is brimming with spectacle, and in this regard it reaches all the transcendental heights of a film like 8½ (1963; with which it shares a nostalgic search for the ideal woman through rumination on the past). Its visual power ironically makes the performances—which are great—seem a weak point of the film. Toni Servillo, good as he is, is no Mastroianni, and it’s difficult to avoid the comparison due to the pervasive similarities between their disillusioned-playboy roles.
Yet to complain about such a capable performance would be uncouth, as would too much analysis. Cliché as it sounds this film is a sensory tour de force. In spite of its 2:22 runtime, it is constantly engaging and even exciting. Its lack of narrative and occasionally drastic cuts do nothing to prevent it from achieving grand continuity over its impressive arc. The film promises something new and better in every scene, and it largely delivers. If you’re up on French/Italian culture then there may be additional pleasures from the cameos—I went with an Italian and apparently I missed quite a few (Fanny Ardant, Antonello Venditti, Rino Barillari). I’ve not seen Sorrentino’s other films but if they’re anything like this one then I greatly look forward to seeing them. ★★★★★