Thursday, January 16, 2014

An Astonishing Experience: La Grande Bellezza - held over at the Music Box for one more week

Étonnez-moi.  Hot off its win as Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globe Awards last Sunday, the Italian Film The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) has been held over at the Music Box theatre for another week.  The theater's website refers to it as “an outlandishly entertaining hallucination.”  It screams out to be seen on the big screen. Don't miss it.

It begins at Janiculum, one of the hills overlooking Rome, with a man contemplating the inscription on a war memorial, Roma o Morte.  Rome or Death.  A tourist takes a picture of the view from the terrace.  It is breathtaking.  For him, literally - he instantly drops dead on the pavement. 

For the characters in Paolo Sorrentino's brilliant La Grande Bellezza, the monument's inscription should be, if not Roma è la morte, at least Roma è il sonno.  The beautiful people most often wander through the city as if sleepwalkers, sedated by their own affluence and the imposing architectural leave-behinds of millenniums of history. For them,  Rome, if not death, is certainly the big sleep, rounding nights of frenzied partying.  Like the one blazing on the terrace of Jep Gambardella's apartment, which just happens to be right across the street from the Coliseum.  It's Jep's 65th birthday, and his aging circle of fashionable friends join him in gyrating to the pounding music in the style of youth that has passed them by.  Dancers grind, seductions are attempted, a frenzied woman screams, a dwarf is tossed, and every so often, through the pulsating music, a Mariachi band strolls as if in an Ives symphony.
photo courtesy Janus Films - click images for larger view
The next day, the mcguffin is revealed, as Jep learns sad news regarding his first love, forgotten for decades.  Except its more than a mcguffin, and the anguish is real, but contained rather than operatic.  Jep has become a flaneur, not just of Rome, but of his own life, from which he has become stylishly detached.

Style - its pleasures and limitations - is at the center of La Grand Bellezzia.  The travelogue resemblance to Woody Allen's To Rome with Love is only surface.  Jep is an insider, not a tourist.  He knows the guy who has the keys to get into the city's most secret, splendid interiors, and we get to come along.  We walk the empty midnight streets with him, and follow cinematographer's Luca Bigazzi's camera to one splendid setting after another.
image courtesy Janus Films
During one evening stroll,  Jep encounters the great French actress Fanny Ardant.  Two people united only by celebrity, they gaze at each for an extended moment with delight and interest, and then, at a loss for words, move on.

On one level, La Grande Bellezza is intended as another attack on the vacuity of Berlusconi's Italy, and it's also a conscious homage to the 60-years-previous decadence of the Rome of  Fellini's La Dolce Vita.  (At one point Jep wears a pair of thick-rimmed glasses that could have been stolen from Marcello Mastroianni.)  Like Mastroianni's Marcello Rubini (or Guido), Jep lives within a web of impossibly beautiful women now, like him, deep into middle-age.
Toni Servillo, with force of nature Sabrina Ferilli (image courtesy Janus Films)
Like Mastroianni's characters, we see everything through the eyes of Jep, in an astonishing performance by Toni Servillo.  And if you're tempted to think Servillo is just playing himself, check the entirely different energy Servillo reveals when speaking as himself in this interview made during the run of Inner Voices at the Chicago Shakespeare theater last year . .  .

Even in his underwear, Jep is always impeccably dressed, and a scene as simple as picking out his new friend's dress for a funeral takes place in a setting any scenic designer would die for.
image courtesy Janus Films
Truth be told, despair among the beautiful people has its attractions.  Everyone seems to sense the dread, but the cocoon of affluence helps keep the anguish fleeting.  
image courtesy Janus Films
Outrage would seem to be the most appropriate response to all of this from the vast majority of us who are neither excessively beautiful or insanely rich, but the seductiveness is unmistakable.  Director Paolo Sorrentino not so much mocks but exalts his grotesques.  More to the point, he makes them human and surprising.  No one - not the dwarf, the Cardinal rumored to be the next Pope, the exploited child, the 40-year-old stripper, the 104-year-old saint - long stays within the cliches of our first impressions.
image courtesy Janus Films
You will either be exasperated by the movie's indulgences, or you'll discover something of yourself in the joys, frustrations and fears beneath the polished surfaces of the film's characters, and find the sumptuous images and elusive emotions of La Grand Bellizzia staying with you the rest of your life.

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