La Grande Bellezza ('The Great Beauty', Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

A tonic for the movie-weary (spoiler alert)

It's easy, in the wash of usual fare, to forget what it feels like when a movie actually has things to say. All too often when visiting the cinema I'm like a dehydrated man dying in the desert, desperate to find but a single interesting idea hidden somewhere to drink in. It's why I started Filmadeus – to describe these moments, the interesting things about a film. I'm often disappointed. Then, suddenly, something like La Grande Bellezza comes along, stuffed to the hilt with ideas and keen observations, to wake me from this bad desert dream.

Audaciously, it starts with a hypnotic montage lasting some ten minutes. It introduces the two sides to this tale: the magnificent, majestic, poetic, spiritual – with images of a gorgeous Roman fountain, eager Japanese tourists and haunting arias, and then the bestial, craven, sexy and dangerous – bouncing along on a nightly dance party, filled with liquor and nudity. This all before a single word of dialog is spoken or the principal characters set up. In the absence of words, of text, of language, La Grande Bellezza induces the viewer to think and ruminate on what could be happening here. What's this trying to say? But nothing so banal. Rather, it lures you into connecting the images, philosophizing on their beauty and meaning beyond plot. It does this by leaving a gap most films would hesitate not to fill with explosions, exposition, excitement. Not so here. Without realizing it, the movie primes you to think like its main character, Jep Gambardella. And when you're ready, it knows when to begin.

Jep is a middle-aged writer and journalist from Rome. He wrote one successful book decades ago, and now is lost in an endless celebration with his equally aging friends. He has money, comfort and luxury, is surrounded by nothing but beauty, yet continues to live alone and deeply unhappy. Somewhere, he lost what he had. Now he's on the hunt to rekindle his fire.

It feels a bit lame to describe this. The plot doesn't matter very much and the film puts it low on the list of things it cares about. This is a series of adventures and encounters with Jep at its center. Characters and situations phase in and out, showing him their qualities and failing to juke him to change. Jep lives on with the casual, smirking distance of one who's seen it all and wants little part of it. Or perhaps he's afraid. He's an observer, a commentator, safe behind a wall of ironic disattachment. In one instance, one of the film's many highlights, Jep describes how to deal with an Italian funeral. It's imperative never to cry, he educates, since you don't want to upstage the grieving family. When the moment finally comes and he carries the casket out of the church, to everyone's horror – including his own – he starts to blubber.

The film is constantly teasing us with these bait-and-switches. It insists on reversing the dominant way of storytelling: where usually an event or relationship is set up and then develops, Jep constantly encounters characters that we don't know (but he clearly does), and argues with them about fights we know nothing of, discusses things unknown to us, hints at mysteries yet untold. We invariably learn only afterwards what it was about. The context of the conversation, the details of the relationship. The effect is that you keep guessing and stay intrigued with the endless parade of new people swinging into Jep's life to momentarily amuse him.

There's no single point the film tries to make about Jep's narcissism, the superbly decadent life of Rome's upper class, the vapidness of art or the self-deception of its struggling makers. At the end, Jep comes no further than stating his intention to start writing again. The whole film is, in a way, a hilarious but completely earnest array of observations and juxtapositions that rarely fail to titillate. The papal candidate who only talks in recipes versus the sanctified, centenary nun who won't say a word. The silent neighbor holding parties much more interesting than Jep's, fabulously wealthy, and when he's finally arrested and taken away, hatefully declares to him that he's the real backbone of the country. The precocious teenage girl who smashes pots of paint on a canvas before a crowd while screaming in rage. “She's not angry,” Jep explains, “she makes millions.”

Even the film itself seems poised to observe. It will drift away from the characters it's following and instead focus on a lovely church in the distance, as if to say: look at that cathedral and how gorgeous it is. Isn't it so much better than anything else? If it wasn't saying and showing things of such breathtaking beauty, this'd be an outrageous comedy. Instead, it's lifted up far beyond the realm of laughter. This film forces a deeply introspective silence on its audience.

La Grande Bellezza oozes that impeccable Italian style and pays homage in no small way to Fellini. There's even a small person in there, of course there's a small person in there! Jep's life runs this way and that, and at every stop there's something of marvelous beauty to consider. That it doesn't ultimately lead to anything (the film just kind of stops rather than finishing) is inconsequential. At that point, we've seen a giraffe in the Colosseum, sneaked into the most hidden cloisters of Rome where ancient duchesses play cards, gotten into deep trances at never-ending parties, and seen flocks of flamingos perch on Jep's balcony. It's all there for you to take in and digest however you choose.

If you squint, you may just about tease out one of the hidden meanings: despite his aloof demeanor, Jep realizes that to be young is to surround yourself with complication and impossible ambitions and stresses. To be old is to learn that life and beauty are in the simplest of things. Jep, now 65, transitions from one to the other.

The Great Beauty: I can't think of a more deserving title for this film, so operatic and brilliantly full of interesting things. Enough to refresh even the nearest to death, desert-lost cinephile.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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