What could be better than living as a celebrity intellectual playboy in the cultural mecca of Rome? You would be surrounded by great minds with whom you could have an unending string of ethical and logical debates. You’d have unlimited access to the world’s most beautiful buildings, the best food, the best art. Everyone would either want to be you or be in your bed. Superhero sagas are so yesterday; it’s about damn time we had an Übermensch epic.
Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” walks the line between an ode to Federico Fellini — most notably, his 1960 masterpiece “La Dolce Vita” — and an outright replica of the inimitable Italian filmmaker’s fantastical, existential oeuvre. But to limit the film as a knockoff, even to saddle it with the appellation “Felliniesque,” as many critics have done, does a disservice to this majestic film. When in Rome, do as Fellini does.
With its potshots at pop culture and its seeming self-seriousness, it would be easy to call “The Great Beauty” pretentious, but Sorrentino defuses those criticisms with a self-aimed biting wit. When our hero, socialite journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), asks a woman to clarify what she means by “the vibrations” she says inspires her performance art (she runs headlong, naked, into stone pillars, knocking herself silly), she initially gets defensive, then speaks in third person about her tantric sex practices and her boyfriend’s confetticovered basketball art. Jep gets up and walks out — he won’t abide this kind of nonsense. Ditto the woman he seduces that night who tries to show him nude pictures of herself she’s posted on Facebook, but covers herself with a sheet as she leaves the room.
“I can´t waste time any more doing things I don´t want to do,” he narrates, lighting a cigarette as he leaves without telling her. It’s not that Jep, who’s just turned 65, is world-weary — he’s ignorance-weary.
But he isn’t jaded. When a stranger approaches Jep to tell him that the first woman he loved has died, it devastates him.
He’s been living for 40 years off the success of his only novel, “The Human Apparatus,” which his hangers-on claim to be one of the greatest pieces of Italian literature; the worst thing his detractors can say is that he wasn’t good enough to follow it up with anything. What are we, Sorrentino asks us, if not the sum of our output? And if that output is one work, no matter how perfect it is, does it still qualify us as a virtuoso? (I can’t help wondering what Harper Lee would think of this film.)
“The Great Beauty,” the front-runner for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award this Sunday, is simultaneously timeless and timely. On a penthouse patio overlooking the Colosseum, characters engage in spirited philosophical debates ranging from the nature of truth to the scourge of reality TV, even as they solicit themselves as subjects for the medium. Religion, politics, their own inadequate sexual histories — nothing is sacrosanct.
Even when their midst is joined by an honest-togoodness saint, a withered Mother Teresa stand-in, Jep and his quorum still can’t quite decide if religion is a central aspect to the human experience or a necessary evil.
Rome itself plays a key role. This isn’t a film that could have been set in Prague or Hong Kong, let alone anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. There’s something eternal about Rome’s incongruous splendor that stirs that collective consciousness and reminds us how little time we truly have here on Earth. What timeless structures have you built lately?
Scenes don’t so much begin and end as they do materialize. Fates of unrelated characters intertwine; memory obfuscates past and present. Jep spends long portions of the film strolling the glistening nighttime streets of Rome, basking in the architecture, comforted by its ghosts. They can’t haunt you, Jep shows us, if you welcome them in.
“The Great Beauty” opens Sunday as part of the East Lansing Film Series, playing through March 26 at Studio C!, 1999 Central Park Blvd., Okemos. celebrationcinema.com/indie.
Marching into the C!
%u2028East Lansing Film Series announces latest indie film schedule
The East Lansing Film Series at Studio C!, 1999 Central Park Blvd., Okemos, announced its March slate, featuring a slew of Academy Award nominees … and your last chance to get an edge on your Oscar pool. The series runs Feb. 28-March 28. For show times and more details, go to celebrationcinema.com/indie.
“All Is Lost” (PG-13, 106 min.)
Robert Redford gives a tour-de-force performance as a sailor adrift at sea, fighting the elements and his own unraveling psyche.
“The Broken Circle Breakdown” (Flemish with subtitles)
This Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee follows the stormy seven-year love affair of two Flemish bluegrass musicians.
“The Great Beauty (La Grande Belleza)” (Italian with subtitles)
When his 65th birthday coincides with a shock from the past, Italian writer/socialite Jep finds himself unexpectedly taking stock of his life. Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee. (See City Pulse review p. 19.)
“Kill Your Darlings” (R, 104 min.)
Two famous fictional Harrys — Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Osborn (Daniel DeHaan, the Green Goblin in this summer’s “Amazing Spider-Man 2”) — play two of the Beat Generation’s defining voices; Radcliffe plays Allen Ginsberg and DeHaan is Lucien Carr in this true-crime murder mystery.
Best Actress nominee Judi Dench leads this intelligently comedic and heartwarmingly inspirational film, pulsing with powerful performances and compelling themes — notably, the guilt of religion and the ferocity of a mother’s love. (See City Pulse review here at goo.gl/mti09m.)
“The Square” (NR, 95 min.)
This Best Documentary nominee shows the Egyptian revolution from the inside, depicting the country’s brutal dictatorship and its corrupt religious regime.