As we descend further and further into awards season, it becomes easy to get swept up in the barrage of hugely buzzed about “for your consideration” prestige films. This is particularly true in a year such as this, where the contention for Best Picture is hotter than ever. Unfortunately, we tend to neglect the strengths of other films released around the same time that are usually pigeonholed into smaller categories.
This year, it looks like the Foreign Language Film category is the one to look out for, with strong competition between some seriously excellent films. However, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s latest, The Great Beauty, currently stands head-and-shoulders above the others.
Set in modern-day Rome, The Great Beauty begins at the 65th birthday party of Jep Gambardella (the brilliant Toni Servillo), a suffering writer suffering serious doubts about his artistic ability. 40 years ago, he wrote a famous novel entitled The Human Apparatus, and has been riding on the success of that work ever since. Now in his 60s, he has resigned himself to writing articles and interviewing difficult and subdued subjects, while also living the good life and partying to great excess. The film charts the journey of Gambardella as he attempts to rediscover his voice through recalling memories of the past, flights of fantasy and appreciation of the art he sees around him.
As others have observed, and as may be obvious from that synopsis, Sorrentino’s film owes a great debt to the work of Federico Fellini, most notably to 8½. Like that masterpiece, The Great Beauty is concerned with a struggling artist attempting to reconcile vision with ambition. Both films also use flashback and surreal interlude to portray the protagonist’s inner turmoil. Sorrentino does this deliberately and has openly admitted that The Great Beauty resides in Fellini’s shadow. That being said, Sorrentino’s intention in depicting the artist in crisis is different from Fellini’s. While 8½ is a semi-autobiographical work whose filmmaking protagonist represents Fellini himself, Sorrentino’s acknowledgement of the film has more to do with appreciation of it as a landmark than emotional resonance for Sorrentino himself.
Many critics have claimed that The Great Beauty is a reflection of post-Berlusconi Italy, but as is evidenced from the title, The Great Beauty is more concerned with aesthetics and significance of art than peddling a political message. Jep is driven to distraction by his lack of inspiration and talent, frustrated by knowledge of his inner greatness and deterred by the greatness he sees around him. Throughout the film, he attempts to revitalize himself in order to create something that lives up to everything he appreciates in life. Jep needs to create a work of art that will stand alongside the other great works of art in different forms.
Sorrentino’s camera fetishizes almost every single object in the film. Everything that is beautiful – from buildings and paintings to the human form – is exploited for our pleasure. Never has architecture been so gorgeously photographed nor have camera movements been so opulent or attention seeking.
This over-indulgence in visual artistry, prettifying everything for the enjoyment of the audience, may come across as shallow, but this is exactly the point Sorrentino is making. We are seeing the film through the eyes of a character who can only appreciate aesthetic beauty and, as a result, many have read the film as shallow and even chauvinistic. Sorrentino presents us with an excessive amount of the male gaze but does so excessively in order to critique the male perspective.
It is very true that, because this is a story about a masculine view of art both written and directed by a man who overworks the male gaze, many may balk at Sorrentino’s focus on the male gaze. They may claim that The Great Beauty degenerates into the very beast it tries to satirize. However, I think Sorrentino makes the execution and the style of The Great Beauty so obvious that his satire remains intact and relevant throughout. Although he wants to force us into the gaze of Jep, we are consistently taken out of it by awareness of that gaze’s sheer obviousness. Due to the deliberate explicitness of the film’s form, The Great Beauty ultimately doubles as an examination of the trials of a filmmaker.
Any time a filmmaker sets out to make something, they do so by acknowledging the great tradition of films that have come before theirs. The Great Beauty is primarily a subtextual examination of that very question: how does a filmmaker or any artist find the courage to create something when the huge spectre of established works of art looms large?
Sorrentino makes this point the very frustration of his main character, and again by repeatedly referencing 8½. There are also some heavy allusions to the literary works of F. Scott Fitzgerald; Jep is a hedonistic socialite and the partying is unlike anything you’ve seen before. In fact, one of his key catchphrases is, “When you are waking up, I’ll be climbing into bed.” Believe it or not, the partying in this film renders similar scenes in Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby adaptation understated.
The Great Beauty uses excess for a purpose rather than just the sake of it. All the while, it remembers that satire never has to be heavy-handed nor does it have to be boring. One of the great pleasures of the film is that it floats by like a dream. Sorrentino makes sure that we are never bored and that we always have something to look at and admire, while still retaining the intelligence behind it. The Great Beauty is a marvelously indulgent piece of cinema that earns its obsessive, luxuriant visual style by applying it through a satirical lens.
Beneath the beautiful surface and indulgence of Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, there is an insightful, intriguing satire about what it means to create art that elevates itself beyond shallow eye candy.