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Given the undiminished stature of Federico Fellini, whose startling foresight is increasingly quoted in contemporary movies (Viva la liberta! is a recent example), it was inevitable that someone would think of remaking his masterpieces. Fortunately, director Paolo Sorrentino knows better than to imitate a giant, and The Great Beauty is more a reverent bow, picking up where La Dolce Vita left off 53 years ago. Perhaps not surprisingly, the eternal city hasn’t changed that much. Though Sorrentino’s vision of moral chaos and disorder, spiritual and emotional emptiness at this moment in time is even darker than Fellini’s (though Ettore Scola‘s The Terrace certainly comes in somewhere), he describes it all in a pleasingly creative way that pulls audiences in through humor and excess. An overly indulgent running time undercuts some of the fun as the film wears on, but it should still score high with international audiences.
It was a deft choice casting the older Toni Servillo as a latter-day Mastroianni, Jep Gambardella, the suave journalist for a big Roman daily who is justly known as “King of the Socialites.” Witty and urbane, but capable of being caustic and hurtful even to his circle of friends, Jep moved to Rome in the 1970s and made a name for himself with a serious novel called The Human Apparatus. It’s the last book he ever wrote. Now he devotes himself to attending parties for the smart set, many on his extraordinary terrace overlooking the Roman Colosseum. He celebrates his 65th birthday in the film’s first long set piece, a massive rooftop bash in which Via Veneto’s giant Martini sign colors the skyline behind frenzied dancers. Their flushed, painted faces and the compulsive way they party are grotesque candy for the smiling, tipsy dandy Jep.
La Dolce Vita’s two famous haunts, Via Veneto and the Trevi fountain where Anita Ekberg took her immortal dip, are briefly referenced. The latter is not re-enacted (how could it be?), though Jep strolls by the Bernini fountains in Piazza Navona with a beautiful blonde stranger (Isabella Ferrari) on his arm. It’s the only time he sleeps with a woman and he doesn’t seem to enjoy it much.
Later, walking down a nearly deserted Via Veneto late at night, he bumps into an old acquaintance who runs a strip club. The owner’s daughter Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) is still stripping at the ripe old age of 42. Her earthiness strikes Jep’s fancy and he drags her to some high society parties for a time, to the mockery of his friends, until he discovers she’s as superficial as everybody else and he restlessly moves on to other toys.
Humor plays a major role in making the film enjoyable, and there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments that capture human absurdity and frailty. Sorrentino, like Fellini, finds the right touch of respectful amusement depicting the Church and the aristocracy. The wizened Cardinal played by Roberto Herlitzka, who is rumored to be the next Pope, brushes aside spiritual queries to ramble on about how to cook duck. The impoverished old prince and princess Jep hires for a party are dignified relics of a world gone by, still surrounded by the grand architecture and art of their ancestors.
Not all the jokes work so well, one of the duds being the opening gag about a Japanese tourist who is literally felled by the sight of so much “bellezza” as he gazes out over Rome from the Janiculum hill. Another is a funeral where Jep upstages the bereaved mother with his tears, which are probably for himself. It’s hard to get the tone just right, though Servillo (Sorrentino’s muse in four films, including the iconic Il Divo) hits the spot a remarkable amount of the time. His cool man around town has depth even as a social butterfly, and contrasts beautifully with popular comic actors like Carlo Verdone, who frets through the role of Jep’s frustrated writer friend, and Ferilli, who gives a nice gravitas to the jaded stripper. Amid the jolly chaos, Fanny Ardant appears as herself, floating down the street late at night like a lovely vision from another planet. She is the definition of magic.
The crassness of the times is indicated by plenty of female flesh on view, beginning with a scene of a naked girl who bashes her brains out against a Roman monument in a senseless piece of performance art. Virtually the only two characters to escape the film’s scorn are Jep’s foreign housekeeper and his editor and confidante Dadina, a dwarf with a sharp mind who knows Jep inside out.
While La Dolce Vita ended with the jaded protagonist being left speechless by the radiant innocence of a young girl on the beach, Jep wistfully stares at a very similar child, dressed in the white habit of a convent school, early in the film. This vision is just the starting point of his journey into decadence, frivolity and an unknown future, not the end point. Instead, Sorrentino and his co-writer Umberto Contarello turn Fellini’s image of redemption into a very old woman of 104, a sort of Mother Teresa of Calcutta figure who has devoted her life to feeding children in Africa and who ends up, incredibly enough, on Jep’s terrace at dawn. She asks him why he squandered his great talent as a writer, and he has no answer for her.
Since so much lies in the images, D.P. Luca Bigazzi plays a major part in the creating the film’s distinctive look. His feeling for Baroque palazzi and statues, streets and piazzas captures the haunting beauty of the title, finally embodied by a flock of graceful flamingos taking wing over the city at dawn. The upside of the tale seems to be that, whatever the future holds, there will always exist the breathtaking, heart-breaking beauty of Rome, and the final shots from the Tiber river can be read as a consolation.
Costumes and production design are top class all the way through, with Lele Marchitelli’s musical choices including heavenly choirs of female voices and organ music.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition), May 20, 2013.
Production companies: Indigo Film in association with Medusa Film, Babe Films, Pathe, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Massimo De Francovich, Roberto Herlitzka, Isabella Ferrari, Dario Cantarelli, Giulio Brogi
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Screenwriter: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
Producers: Francesca Cima, Nicola Giuliano
Co-producers: Fabio Conversi, Jerome Seydoux
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Stefania Cella
Costumes: Daniela Ciancio
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Music: Lele Marchitelli
Sales Agent: Pathe International
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