Film Review: A Picturesque Whirl through Rome in ‘Great Beauty’

Great Beauty 5The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) took home best film and three other prizes from last Saturday’s European Film Awards. Paolo Sorrentino’s (Il divo) latest slice of Italian life – given its story, setting and lead character – has been favorably compared with Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which certainly puts it in good company.

In its moments of memory (and brief asides on the nature of art) this movie also bears shades of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” – the title of which has been translated from the French in recent decades as the more revealing “In Search of Lost Time” – and the cinematic composition Michelangelo Antonioni gave the world from Le Amiche and L’Avventura forward (there’s even a verbal reference to Antonioni in the film that Sorrentino co-wrote with Umberto Contarello). But these and other influences don’t lead to some dense cinematic discourse on life – The Great Beauty maintains a light, and even hopeful, touch while examining its setting with a worldly but not jaundiced eye (cinematographer Luca Bigazzi deserves heaps of praise for his arresting and gorgeous visuals throughout this feature).

Great Beauty 2The film’s look at life also touches on death – from an incident in its opening on the Janiculum overlooking the Tiber to memories of a long-ago love who recently died and other matters, celebrity journalist Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo, whose lined face is a fascinating visual in itself) is reminded of mortality as he turns 65. His big claim to fame is a 40-year-old novel – his only book – and the fact that his taste governs what many in Rome’s high life-scene consider bellissimo when it comes to parties (he lets us know in voiceover that from the time he arrived in Rome he wanted the power to make those parties a failure) that don’t get going until midnight and break up only when the sun is rising.

Gambardella begins to acknowledge the superficial waste of his existence. He seeks something more in the city he loves and in others, notably a middle-aged stripper named Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) and Santa (Giusi Merli), a 104-year-old that is this story’s version of Mother Teresa.

Great Beauty 3Servillo is smooth as silk in giving us Gambardella’s weariness at his largely libertine lifestyle while still registering his growing appreciation of the people and places that make Rome so beautifully unique. His castmates, particularly Ferilli, Merli and Giovanna Vignola as his all-knowing editor and confidante Dadina, give us sharply-drawn portraits of those to whom Gambardella turns as he stands at the crossroads his seemingly-sweet-life has reached.

But ultimately The Great Beauty is just that – a picturesque whirl through Rome that allows us to open our eyes (and ears, given not only the sounds of the city but a musical score that includes a mix of sacred songs and Italian pop hits) to perpetually lovely wonders in the Eternal City. Sorrentino does not claim to be the second coming of Fellini, but this imaginative and entertaining work shows he has learned from the master – as Sorrentino says in press notes for this release, “…Invention is necessary in cinema just to attain the truth. It might seem contradictory, but it isn’t at all. Fellini once said: ‘Cinema verité? I prefer the cinema of lies. The lie is the soul of the spectacle. What has to be authentic is the emotion felt in watching or expressing.’”

Great Beauty 1The Great Beauty [La Grande Bellezza] ( opens Friday (Dec. 13) in Nashville exclusively at the Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.); click here for showtimes and to buy tickets. This film is not rated but recommended for mature audiences, in Italian with English subtitles, 142 min. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino; written by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello. Starring Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Verdone, Giusi Merli, Giovanna Vignola, Carlo Buccirosso, Isabella Ferrari, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Massimo De Francovich and Roberto Herlitzka.

*Photos by Gianni Fiorito / Acme PR courtesy Janus Films.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (