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La Grande Bellezza

(The Great Beauty)

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Poster art for La Grande BellezzaYou’re in Rome, at the kind of party you’ve only ever imagined. The young and gorgeous mix with aging aristocrats on a terrace overlooking the Coliseum. These are the sort of people who can make line dancing look sophisticated, which is what they’re doing when a white-haired gentleman steps out of formation and turns to you. The action slows down as he gazes, lights a cigarette and muses in voice-over about the things a great writer notices.

So begins La Grande bellezza, a film more ravishingly Felliniesque than many of Federico Fellini’s own movies. Director Paolo Sorrentino doesn’t simply mimic the master’s style and preoccupations, which anyone could do, but conjures the kind of emotions that made La Dolce Vita, 8 ½ and others endure. He collects scenes of superficial extravagance and eccentricity, then finds the deeper yearnings they conceal.

The writer in that opening scene, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), could almost be an older version of the Marcello Mastroianni character in La Dolce Vita. Having published one very successful novel 40 years earlier, Jep became ‘King Of The High Life’ and never penned another, instead doing just enough journalistic work to keep him in contact with everyone worth knowing. That terrace by the Coliseum is part of his bachelor pad, where he recuperates after all-night revelry and hosts parties large and small. This last one was for his 65th birthday, a milestone which is making him more introspective than usual.

Jep’s nascent melancholy deepens when he’s visited by a stranger named Alfredo. He’s the widower of Jep’s first love. Opening her private diary after her death, Alfredo learned that she remained in love with Jep her whole life, despite the fact that she, not Jep, broke things off.

A sense of loss dogs Jep afterward, but it’s a beautiful, suave sadness, the kind that might incline a man to linger more than usual over life’s sensory pleasures, delights that Sorrentino and fellow screenwriter Umberto Contarello readily supply. Abetted by Luca Bigazzi’s lush cinematography, they take us on candlelit tours of secret museums, peek into places where the wealthy are pampered and wander into an ancient ruin where a lone giraffe stands under a spotlight.

Many of these scenes tilt toward the surreal, making the most of Servillo’s unflappability: the actor looks like a man who has seen every form of decadence the human imagination can create, and participated in many of them. But Servillo gives Jep an intellectual spark and a generosity of spirit one doesn’t expect from a veteran of so many skin-deep friendships. When provoked by a woman who has been bemoaning the do-nothing narcissism of her peers, he calmly hacks apart her idealized self-image, then affectionately suggests that their whole social circle is similarly flawed. Uttering what could be the motto of a movie so focused on appreciating beauty where it can be found, he implores her: ‘We’re all in tatters. Pass the time with us nicely.’

– John DeFore, The Washington Post
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