Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's in-your-face, gongoric style is not to everyone's taste - but its show-off nature is entirely in tune with the modern Italy that he speaks of. Nowhere has this been made more visible than in The Great Beauty's look at the vain, disposable facade of a "society of spectacle" that seems to perpetuate itself to satiety, without ever attaining the essence of what it is to be human.

     In many ways, The Great Beauty could be seen as a twin of Matteo Garrone's excellent Reality, which was also all about modern Italy as a morally bankrupt country - though admittedly a more cynical, less desperate twin, and one that seems to revel in what it denounces as much as it despises it. That Mr. Sorrentino's hero is a notable gossip columnist who has squandered away his talent as a novelist, and that The Great Beauty takes place during the frivolous, long nights of Rome, practically invite the comparisons to Federico Fellini's epoch-making La Dolce Vita. And how dare Mr. Sorrentino take on the master's surreal, grotesque visions!

     Well, yes, he did dare - if you've seen the bewildering This Must Be the Place you'll know by now this isn't one director that is afraid of ridicule - and pulls it off with mixed results. Sprawling, overlong, occasionally heavy-handed, often grotesque, The Great Beauty is certainly bursting with Mr. Sorrentino's trademark grandiose, sweeping pans, becoming more of an annoyance and a tic by the minute now, especially because they're not always native or relevant to the story he wishes to tell.

     The film moves between the "micro" of the small world of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) and his search for meaning as he hits 65 and wonders what has he spent his life doing, and the "macro" of a Rome where everybody asks what is there left to look for. It's almost as if Mr. Sorrentino is aware that he cannot make another Dolce Vita or even attempt to update it, just strive for a modern-day equivalent. And just as Mr. Fellini had Marcello Mastroianni as his alter ego, so does the director have the great Mr. Servillo, whose performance as Jep is oddly (but probably not entirely casually) reminiscent of Silvio Berlusconi, but also remarkably kind and sensitive - especially in the key scene of his brutally considerate takedown of friend Stefania (Galatea Ranzi), who pretends to be what she isn't and tries to convince herself her life was worth something.

     That humanity, lying underneath all the bravado set-ups and contemporary music signposting from a distance the seriousness of the subject, makes up for the many flaws that The Great Beauty has, in a peculiar struggle with the savage cynicism that is present throughout. But perhaps that struggle between humanity and cynicism is inherent to a film whose subject is the all-pervading vapidity of a society that lost its moorings, its setting a city of illusions and facades and its engine the unavoidable passage of time. This cannot be Fellini's La Dolce Vita, because la vita is no longer dolce; it's a film about people who still believe in la dolce vita despite everyone else knowing it's a lie. That includes, for better and worse, Mr. Sorrentino himself.

Cast: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Franco Graziosi, Giorgio Pasotti, Massimo Popolizio, Massimo de Francovich, Roberto Herlitzka, Isabella Ferrari
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Screenwriters: Mr. Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello, from a story by Mr. Sorrentino
Cinematography: Luca Bigazzi  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Lele Marchetelli
Designer: Stefania Cella
Costumes: Daniela Ciancio
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima (Indigo Film in co-production with Medusa Film, Babe Films, Pathé Production and France 2 Cinéma)
Italy/France, 2013, 141 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, February 3rd 2014

Winner of the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award


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