The Great Beauty is a film that will divide audiences. On the one hand, it provides viewers with lush cinematography and a glimpse at Rome. It has a snarky, dark sense of humor and it has the sort of uniquely cold detachment while maintaining high artistic sensibilities that are frequently displayed: from the colorful glow of the parties to the lush landscapes of the environment in the storyline. The Great Beauty is from director and co-writer Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo), and it has won numerous praise (some of it quite well deserved). It even won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Awards. Yet I am confident that the film will not appeal to everyone, including myself, because it is also a film that is dark, unsentimental, and a bit smug about its presumed intellectualism. (I rarely use the word in critiquing films, but I found this to be a pretentious effort).
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servill) was once the life of the party. He came to Rome as a young man and made a name for himself and joined the wealthy socialites of the city with a vigor that made him famous and well-respected amongst the inner-circle of the rich and popular people. He lived life going to parties, staying up all night, and going to bed once it was morning. He knew almost everyone and almost everyone knew him. Yet sometime along this journey of living a relatively carefree and superfluous lifestyle he realized that, as he sees it, Rome is no longer a rich, great place of adventure and beauty. Jep wishes he could leave Rome but he also sees no point now that he has spent most of his life living there.
Jep begins to regret the way he has spent several decades of his life and he contemplates the fact that he wrote only one novel when he was young and how has never made time for another one. Throughout the movie he continues to come up with reasons why he is incapable of following it up with another book. He conducts interviews for a publication as his only source of creativity, but he dislikes the people he interviews and feels detached. He critiques them as he interviews, providing a sort of mocking disinterest. He mocks (sometimes openly) his circle of friends (if they can truly be called that), and he acts like a person consistently too good for those around him. Jep is an unsentimental person who has earned a name for himself for partying and being social but he no longer seems to care, and he wonders around pondering his existence and past with cynicism aplenty. Yet some viewers may sympathize with him anyway, in some fleeting moments.
In one of the most important scenes in The Great Beauty, Jep coldly tears apart the lifestyle and lack of 'reality' of one of his female friends. The scene ends with her seemingly fragmented by his cold and unrelenting words. This scene represents his coldness to others and to himself. It really is a fundamentally important part of the film as the majority of the story focuses on his poor relations to others and to himself.
The plot of the film is essentially to follow the life of Jep as he has strange encounters with the people of Rome - both those he once knew in life and some new individuals he had never met before. Throughout the film there are moments of contemplative monologues given in what is strange and experimental (akin to something one might find in the works of David Lynch). It intersects with the foundation of experimentalism found in Fellini's 8 1/2 and his other works, while borrowing heavily from his stylistic experimentation and focus on Rome. The fact that Sorrentino is experimental with the film is something that can sometimes work to its benefit exceedingly well.
In one of the best scenes in the film, the story shifts to focusing on a young girl who is simply wanting to spend time playing with her friends. Yet her parents would rather she go make a painting for them. We soon discover that she is a painter who makes abstract art that sells for millions. Presumably, her parents see all of the proceeds (and even use some of them to host such lavish parties where they won't even let their daughter play with her friends).
As she goes to make the painting, everyone watches her make the art happen. She is crying and is seemingly quite depressed. Coldly, Jep (who is at the party) comments that she has no reason to be unhappy as she makes millions. The end result of the painting looks stunning, but it is also just another painting with splashes of color everywhere and no clear meaning. One wonders what Sorrentino is trying to convey here. I can't help but think it is a critique on art and the audience's relation to it and an inquiring moment into whether or not art is worth it if the artist's own work isn't something that comes from a place of happiness. It's such an unusual scene and it seems so fascinating to me. I know there is a deeper metaphor here, but perhaps I am a few steps away of fully absorbing it. This scene may have been a longer extension of the political and art critiques cemented into the film about Rome and the upper-class world.
Sorrentino has done an excellent job of providing The Great Beauty with ample style. It's a well-directed film with a lot of artsy camera-work from one scene to the next, with rarely any of the films many sequences seemingly poorly filmed as far as technique is approached. The partying sequences are effectively realized as loud, over-the-top, and screeching in their overwhelming appearances. The odd symbolism and experimentalism (as seen when a Giraffe makes a weird cameo appearance in the film) adds some flavor to the artistry. One scene was even filmed at exactly the same place Fellini filmed a sequence (this is noted during the on-disc interviews). Sorrentino's ability to do that sort of recalling of a past cinematic outing fits with the strong nostalgic tone set by the entire film's plot.
One thing that truly made an impression on me with this film was its sense of melancholy. The entire thing has a sad aura to it that permeates the entire story. The main thing is that Jep is not someone who is even remotely happy the entire storyline focuses on his nostalgic thoughts on what came before without proposing much at all as being possible for the future. It makes the entire effort pessimistic and something harder to absorb and appreciate.
The best thing about the film is probably the performance given by Toni Servill. Whether or not audiences like the character, he makes Jep seem convincing as a nostalgic former party-magnet turned cold, aging, and cynical critic of himself and everyone else. He manages to carry almost every scene in the film and that is something truly worthy of praise. From his strange smile to solemn gaze, Servill makes the character interesting.
The film does not fully succeed, though. I feel as though it has too much negativity on display; too much abundance of cynicism. There is even a subplot that is suggested as a romantic plot, where Jep discovers that a former lover from his youth (who he knew for one summer) has passed away and had written in her diary that he was the love of her life. The husband now seems heartbroken. Jep takes the news with little emotion shown. He acts both unsurprised, unmoved, and uninterested. Yet over the film he sometimes reminisces about her and their summer together. But one gets the impression it is not a story of lost love but that it is just another extension of his thoughts about himself and his feelings of loss: despite the fact he doesn't seem to have thought of her until the husband brings her back into his life. (This is entirely open to interpretation, of course). The husband then shortly moves on, showing a detachment from both Jep and the husband. I found this entire sub-plot rather bleak. It's a unromantic and disheartening part of the storyline.
I also find the film to be a bit unfocused: over 40 minutes of footage originally intended to be in the film was cut out in the version finally released to the public. I wonder if that cut would have been even more unfocused or if it would have made the film more linear somehow. Take, for example, the opening of the film: it takes around twenty minutes for the main character to be introduced. The rest is simply a showcase of Rome and of partying: then, at the party, there's finally an introduction to Jep. I found the film to be a bit scattered and uneven and this intro works perfectly as a prime example.
While there is a lot of stylistic splendor to explore in the filmmaking, I couldn't get past the seemingly smug pretentiousness of the film's off-kilter attempts at intellectualism: in its odd take on discussing modern politics, the world of art, the state of Rome, and of people in general. Everything seemed so cynical and cold. I like my movies with a taste of hope and some positivity. The storytelling of The Great Beauty never even considers to be positive. It's universally a bit of a downer.
The Great Beauty has been presented on Blu-ray with a richly detailed MPEG-4 AVC encoded 1080p High Definition transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The highly filmic presentation is both fitting for the nostalgia of the film and it provides the audience with a more rich scenic view of Rome. The presentation is from the 35mm negative, and the source quality is exquisite. This is certainly a impressive and notable transfer with good clarity, detail, color reproduction, and the transfer is free of DNR and other imperfections found with unwanted digital tinkering. Fans of The Great Beauty will certainly marvel at how impressive the film looks in High Definition on this Blu-ray release.
The only audio option is the original language Italian audio (as it should be). The film has been given a detailed 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Presentation, which Criterion has provided with a high quality lossless encode.
When the film's soundstage wants to impress it does so with great bass reproduction, surround usage, and overall immersion. Yet the sound design alternates, sometimes slowing down and only focusing in on dialogue (which is also well reproduced). Some sequences are so well-designed from the audio aspect it enhances a number of sequences (such as the many party scenes of the film with regards to music reproduction), while other moments in the film are simple and quiet to behold. In managing such moments, the stellar lossless audio presentation does a good job balancing surround enhanced scenes with scenes that sound more like what one might expect from a slightly expanded stereo audio presentation. With each moment of the film, the clarity and crispness of the audio is readily apparent.
English subtitles are provided.
Criterion does not disappoint in the extras department with another fine assortment of materials. Even the packaging is a beauty with the well-designed Digipack housing the Blu-ray, 2 DVD's, and the booklet with a essay by critic Philip Lopate that is informative, well-written, and quite interesting to read.
As for other extras, the on-disc supplements are all presented in 1080p High Definition on this release.
Interview with Toni Servillo (13 min.) is a interesting interview with the lead actor of the film about his experience working on it and on other films with director Paolo Sorrentino. He talks about the character and the overall process.
Interview with director/co-writer Paolo Sorrentino (38 min.) is a in-depth discussion with a film critic conducting the interview with much enthusiasm and intelligence -- the wide range of the questions and the sometimes surprising answers given by Sorrentino make this an excellent addition to the release and it should fascinate even those who were not as keen on the film. Without a doubt this is the most notable supplement on this release and it's a truly effective interview with some fascinating insights offered.
Interview with co-screenwriter Umberto Contarello (12 min.) talks about the writing process, working with Sorrentino, and about some of their quirks as a writing-team. This piece is the shortest and least informative, but it still provides some much appreciated insight into the foundations behind the making of the film.
Theatrical Trailer for The Great Beauty
On the release, Criterion has provides around six minutes of excised footage in the form of one entirely removed scene and a montage that shows viewers brief shots and clips from the wide array of cut footage (which was possible because the initial cut of the film was over 3 hours long). It's only disappointing that the entirety of these deleted scenes were not provided.
Of course, I would have liked to see the supplemental section actually contain this longer cut. Considering my mixed feelings about the film, I think it would have been nice to compare versions, and to see what exactly Sorrentino had in mind for the film initially. Yet I have absolutely no idea if this version was ever fully completed post-production, which is the seemingly possible reason for Criterion to only contain select deleted footage instead.
The Great Beauty is going to be a film that is polarizing to a lot of viewers. The entire experience of the film is quite unusual and not so pleasant, but that doesn't stop it from making a impression. One issue with the film reside in the fact that the entire effort feels like something inspired by great classics of foreign cinema, yet it doesn't seem even remotely close to matching any of the classics that shaped it, nor does it manage to convey something truly mesmerizing and emotionally resonant. Instead, the film is a effort that mostly expresses itself through cold detachment that is both uninvolving and pessimistic.
While some audiences will love the film for its rich cinematic styling's, I found the film to be a disappointing effort that was too bleak for my own interests in cinema. I imagine many other viewers will leave their experience of watching The Great Beauty with a similar reaction so exploring the film with a rental before purchase would be a good way to approach this film. There's a lot of aspects of The Great Beauty to praise artistically, but not necessarily a lot that would make me want to revisit this cinematic world.