Despite the title's implications, this film does not tell the story of Judge Clark Douglas' life.
A timeless landscape of absurd, exquisite beauty.
"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?"
Facts of the Case
Decades ago, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, The Girl by the Lake) wrote a novel that was widely regarded as a masterpiece. While he hwhicas attained a considerable degree of professional success and popularity in the years since due to his work as a journalist, he never found the inspiration to deliver a follow-up to his life's greatest work. Shortly after his 65th birthday, Jep receives a piece of sad news: a woman he once loved has passed away. This revelation causes the playboy writer to become more introspective than he has in years, searching through his past and present for something meaningful.
When we're introduced to Jep Gambardella for the first time, he is happily luxuriating in his position at the center of a swanky, sensuous party. With a wide grin, enthusiastic dance moves and a lit cigarette, he looks the very definition of a wealthy playboy. Director Paolo Sorrentino presents the party with such energy and enthusiasm that we can understand why Jep has been content to spend much of the past few decades soaking up life's most superficial pleasures. If the reports of others are to be believed, he's been the life of every party, made friends with everyone and slept with countless women. It takes a tragic moment to inspire Jep to feel an unexpected craving for something deeper, but he quickly becomes all too aware of just how empty and hollow his world has become.
The desperate search for substance fuels The Great Beauty, and it runs deeper than the central character's life. Yes, Sorrentino is telling the story of an individual who has squandered his potential, but he's also telling the story of Rome, and of religion, and of cinema itself. The film is filled with a burning desire to rekindle a culture that was once so vibrant, to recapture the magic of a fading city and the power of a once-astonishing cinematic movement. Sorrentino fills his film with some very intentional references to Fellini, but he isn't merely content to tip his hat to the great director. This is a movie that fully intends to be the next 8 1/2 or La Dolce Vita, a sprawling, enigmatic, opulent, intensely personal achievement that will prove eternally compelling but will reveal new depths as its viewers return to it. Has it achieved that goal? I don't know. This doesn't feel like a movie that can be fully digested in a single viewing—its narrative and thematic ambition is too broad and overwhelming. However, I can assure you that it's endlessly compelling from start to finish, and that any remaining mysteries are the sort that tend to inspire viewers (well, at least this viewer) to dig deeper.
There's a hint of Marcello Mastroianni in Toni Servillo's face, but the protagonist of this film has a bit more sadness built into his visage. It isn't until we've spent quite a lot of time with him that we realize how artificial that introductory grin seems—beneath the cool, collected exterior is a tired, restless, unfulfilled human being. It's a terrific performance, one that requires Servillo to move from exuberant to heartbroken to detached at regular intervals. That's partially due to the non-linear, episodic structure of the film, which finds our protagonist debating with friends, striking up a new romance with a middle-aged stripper (Sabrina Ferilli, Tutta la vita davanti), visiting old acquaintances, quizzing important members of the Catholic Church and so on. Some of these segments are more intimately connected than others (and some more obviously so than others), but they all add crucial pieces to the vast thematic tapestry Sorrentino is building and deepen our understanding of Jep's journey.
The Great Beauty (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection certainly lives up to its title in the visual department, presenting one gorgeous image after another over the course of the film's 142-minute running time. This is easily one of 2013's best-looking films, visually absorbing whether it's examining the character's faces, crumbling buildings or sprawling landscapes. The level of detail is simply remarkable throughout, darker scenes benefit from considerable depth and flesh tones look warm and natural. Essentially a perfect transfer. Ditto the DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which delivers the dialogue with clarity but really soars when it tackles the diverse musical selections. Aggressive dance music, light pop and lots of elegiac orchestral material sit side-by-side on the soundtrack, further adding to the film's tonally diverse nature. Anyway, it's a tremendous track, though you might adjust the volume a bit when transitioning from a wild party scene to a quiet dialogue scene.
Supplements are typically generous and informative. The meatiest and best additions are three interviews with key participants: actor Toni Servillo (13 minutes), screenwriter Umberto Contarello (12 minutes) and director Paolo Sorrentino (38 minutes). All three are certainly worth checking out, offering some insight into the film's goals and some interesting stories about how it came to fruition. You also get a pair of deleted scenes, a trailer, a booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Lopate and a DVD copy of the film and all the extras (this has become standard operating procedure for Criterion; it's a good way of "future-proofing" their releases for those who still prefer standard-def).
I won't pretend to understand or fully grasp every aspect of The Great Beauty, but I'm not sure that Jep understands or fully grasps every aspect of the wondrous things he sees, either. It's a beautiful, mysterious film that proves to be a thoroughly intoxicating and often moving experience. I look forward to returning to it and unraveling more of its mysteries in the years ahead.
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