Believe it or not, this was my third time giving The Great Beauty a chance. The first two times I hated it. In fairness, both of my previous two attempts were not during the ideal circumstances. The first time was on Video on Demand before the home release. I didn’t realize the movie was as long as it was, so I had to cram it in during a busy time before the 24-hour rental period expired. It seemed beautifully shot, but overlong and plodding. The second time was when it was on Netflix instant, before the Criterion release and before I knew I’d be undertaking this ambitious project. That time my take was similar, but I watched it when I was tired and felt it was an inferior La Dolce Vita knockoff. My love for Fellini fueled my hate for Sorrentino.
I bought the Criterion because I buy all of the Criterion Blu-Rays, but it was one I planned to save for a rainy day. Maybe I would watch it last. I decided to try again after talking with Mikhail from the Wrong Reel podcast. I respect his opinions and often agree with him (although not always). He said he considered it to be one of his top 20 films of all time. Really? That was a surprising statement. He also would have La Dolce Vita in the same top 20. That was even more surprising, because I know some other Fellini fans who also despise The Great Beauty. Since I had revisited La Dolce Vita since my last attempt at this film, I figured it would at least be an interesting experiment in contrast, but I did not expect my mind to be changed.
My mind was changed.
The beginning of the film is absolutely exhilarating. I thought that on all three viewings, but it especially took hold of me this time. The film begins in daylight and the camera cuts quickly between gorgeous Roman buildings and vistas, intermingled with shots of random people. We see a Japanese tour group, and one of them dies, which introduces two themes that will come back later – tourism and death, and this moment will be subtly recalled at the end of the film. The camera is rarely static, and instead moves quickly, reminding me of Wenders’ Wings of Desire that gives the sequence a constantly flowing feeling.
Daylight abruptly ends and night begins as we are transported to a vibrant party, introducing a contrast that will continue throughout the film – the splendor of Rome during the day versus the wildness and debauchery at night. The camera moves just like it did in the daytime, with the same type of quick cuts. We see random images of participants, a motley crue of characters, some of whom will return later and some we will leave with the party. The party is a way to memorably introduce the main character.
Hello, Jep Gambardella! When we are introduced to Jep (Toni Servillo), he is clearly in his element. He dances to the hypnotic music, has a beaming smile, and soon will randomly French kiss one of the beautiful women. This is his 65th birthday party, and although he has the gray hair, he acts like someone half his age. He is a partier, living for the nightlife without a care in the world. He is affable, casual, fun loving, and we immediately understand why such a huge crowd flocks to his party. He’s the kind of guy people want to know, and even at 65, the kind of guy that people want to be.
I cannot write this without highlighting the similarities between Jep and Marcello from La Dolce Vita. They are both journalists. Marcello wrote for gossip magazines, whereas Jep interviews various figures from performance artists to religious figures. Jep is the more prestigious writer, both presently and in his past, having written a novel (or novella, as it is sometimes referred) forty years ago that sounds to have reached a level of popularity and literary credibility that Marcello was not within sniffing distance. They both are having an aging crisis, although Jep’s has more to do with being close to mortality, whereas Marcello is having a mid-life crisis. They both live for the night. In both films they go to parties and gallivant around Rome at night.
The similarities end there. Marcello is a bitter individual, whereas Jep upbeat, yet cynical about life and society and can be caustic, particularly when he verbally takes down a fellow, hubristic writer. They are both charismatic and well liked, but Marcello is downbeat and soft spoken. Jep has his somber moments, but even when he is questioning his place in life, he still carries himself with composure and is not nearly as aloof as Marcello. It is also worth noting that in both films, the writers encounter a young girl. The one that Marcello meets is fond of him, and does not see his bitterness, whereas we barely even see the one that Jep encounters. She is underground and Jep speaks to her through a sewer grate. She tells Jep that he is nobody.
There are a few other filmic elements and plot points that evoke memories of Fellini, and I was surprised to find in the supplements that the filmmakers were not consciously updating Fellini. I’m not saying they are being disingenuous. Perhaps these similarities were accidental or unconscious, or maybe they are just being coy about their inspiration. Either way, I think it is fair to make comparisons.
Despite these few similarities, many of which are either plot and character broad strokes, and others that are minor details, The Great Beauty deserves to be viewed on its own artistic merit. It makes many prescient statements and observations about modern life and society.
One reoccurring plot point is the art world. Along the way, we meet a few modern performance artists. One of them is a child who hurls paint cans at a canvas while having an emotional episode. One spectator complains at the exploitation, and is told that she makes millions, implying that commerce is the inspiration rather than passion. Another performance artist begins with knife throwing around a woman. At first the worry is for the woman’s well being, and then when she walks away, we see that the knives left an artistic imprint on the wall. This combination of a carnival act and the art world is important, and would be recalled later.
There is one scene where a man discusses with Jep how he will hide a giraffe. This act is not magic or art, but unequivocally a carnival act. He reveals that it is just a trick. Earlier in the film, a performance artist hurls herself at a stone column and smacks into it head first. This is just part of her performance, but is the most memorable as it appears that she has physically harmed herself, drew blood even, and all for art. It is later revealed that she had a buffer that prevented her from harm, so this was just also trick.
Jep sees these artistic demonstrations during his professional or social sphere. When the sun comes out, another form of art is revealed – the architectural beauty of Rome. Some of the film’s “great beauty” is revealed either during sunset when Jep is beginning his nightly adventure, or when the sun has come up after his night has ended. What he sees on his solo journeys is real beauty, real art, and not artifice.
A moment that is striking both for Jep and the viewer is when he encounters another piece of modern art, but he stumbles onto it by accident during one of his daylight strolls. This piece of art is simple, just a number of small snapshots of the same person on different days. It does not sound impressive by description, but the large number of these pictures as a whole reaches a magnitude that makes it a larger, and more distinct artistic statement. This is life and it is beautiful. You could say that the art itself is a trick because it is comprised of numerous little photos, easy to produce individually, but the end result is something special. The difference is that it has no commercial motive and someone like Jep can wander by it without paying anything.
The film touches on a number of other subjects and themes that I could write thousands more words about, such as the nature of death, love, tourism, classism, resistance to aging, religion, and plenty more. On this third viewing, I saw a dense and complicated film that is about various forms of beauty. “The Great Beauty,” however, is just a trick.
Film Rating: 8/10
Paolo Sorrentino: 2013 discussion with film scholar Antonio Monda.
Monda talks about meeting Sorrentino when accepted One Man Up for the Tribeca film fest’s first year. Scorsese asks Monda to call him because he was Italian, and it happened to be on April Fools Day so Sorrentino thought it was a joke.
Jep was intentionally supposed to be a likeable and casual figure, who had a cynical outlook on life and the world. They had seen people like that in Italy (particularly Naples) and it was not a tough character to envision. The “medium long” hair was a negotiation. Sorrentino wanted it longer.
They talk about the parallels with La Dolce Vita, and Monda wonders whether the broad stroke similarities were conscious. Sorrentino says they were not conscious. He says the only one that was intentional was filming the Via Veneto today. He says that the other references are unintentional, but perhaps subconscious because of his affection for Fellini.
The film is 137 minutes, which is long, but the first cut was longer. He misses those cut scenes and liked the first cut of the film, which was 190 minutes. He was not made to cut the film, but he did it himself. He thought that a long film would be exhausting, and it would perpetuate the theme (my words) that life is exhausting.
Toni Servillo: 2013 Criterion Collection interview.
This was his fourth film with Sorrentino, and he acknowledges that he owes a debt to the man for making his career. They share many ideas and observations, which made their way into the lead character. Paolo even designed the wardrobe, which was based on a Neapolitan tailor. Paolo wanted his Neapolitan flair to be very evident and clear, and not something he tried to conceal.
One thing I loved about this interview was not the words spoken, but the bookshelf behind him. There were books on Selznick & Hitchcock, Zanuck, and African Film Music. Servillo is not only a participant in film, but also a connoisseur and admirer.
Umberto Contarello: 2013 Criterion Collection interview.
Contarello is the screenwriter that worked with Paolo, and like Monda, met him at a festival. Some of his comments are redundant from the Sorrentino interview because he talks about them working together on a film that did not end up getting made. They developed a rapport during this collaboration.
When he heard about the scope of the project, which was Sorrentino’s accumulated thoughts about Rome, he said thought the project was ambitious, but Contarello also had thoughts on Rome that he could add. So they went to it. They did not intend to write a complex film that was a critique of modern society, so they intentionally added dimensions to Jep from things they liked about writers. “He seems fresh off the boat from Napoli” because of the way he moves around the city, but they portrayed him as if he lived in Rome for years.
They approached Fellini as an archetype on an unconscious level, basically repeating Sorrentino’s remarks. He compares this to The Odyssey, and that basically every film about a journey is inspired by Homer to a certain degree. A film about Rome cannot help but draw from La Dolce Vita
Maestro Cinema – Jep visits an aging film director in this short scene. The character has made a lot of films that said little of importance, and wants to make a film that says something. The director is the opposite of Jep.
Montage – This is a two-minute collection of deleted scenes. I’m actually glad they did not include the entire long cut, even if the scenes were good (and they do look good), but that would have been too much. Sorrentino was right to cut this film down. That said, one day I would like to see the longer film.
Criterion Rating: 8/10
LA DOLCE VITA, FEDERICO FELLINI, 1960
While ultimately a distinctively Fellini arthouse project, La Dolce Vita is also an ambitious, sprawling epic. There’s a lot of story to tell, and it does so through a tightly structured sequence of loosely connected scenes, taking place mostly during the night or at dawn after the night’s events are over. There is not so much a plot as a sequence of episodes that say a little something about the hidden side of Rome, and a lot about the lead character of Marcello, even if he happens to be often be a passive observer during many of these adventures.
At the core is a statement on the media, and given that it’s about celebrity and media, it was ahead of its time. In fact, the term ‘paparazzi’ originated with the film because the photographer that works with Marcello is named Paparazzo. When the American/Swedish actress of Sylvia exits her airplane, a mob of photographers await, and she milks the attention by posing and even making a second, more photogenic exit from the plane. It is a negotiation between the two worlds, and she does a little dance with them, specifically with Marcello into the evening. He is a reporter and is part of the machine, yet he does not quite lower himself to the vulture-like behavior of the photographers.
Marcello, played by Marcello Mastrioanni, is not the most scrupulous individual. He is engaged to a woman that he tolerates, yet does not seem to adore. He is ill at ease basically everywhere he goes, and is always on the pursuit for something better. Whether this is a better looking or more intriguing girl, or a more fun time, he is never pleased with his situation. He seldom acts out, but instead shows his dissatisfaction through his nervous energy. Even when he encounters his father in a later scene, having not seen him in ages, he is not pleased with the way the night unfolds and tries to get away. The only time he raises his voice is when his fiancé finally calls him out. Even then he runs away, only to come back later and reconcile.
Many of the most notable scenes are when Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) is on the screen, whether running up the stairs, dancing to rock and roll music, or walking in the fountains. To Marcello and the audience, she is magical, but she is fleeting. She is not his or ours. She is the unobtainable, and that reminds Marcello that his world of the media can interact but not intersect with the celebrities that he engages. There’s a later scene where he enjoys the company of Nico (of Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol fame) as part of a group that tours an abandoned castle. Like Marcello, she is just a bystander, a participant. It is during this scene that the rich heiress friend and part-time lover Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) finally professes love to him and suggests marriage, but even that is a mirage. The moment the words escape her lips, she is intertwined with someone else’s embrace and hides from Marcello. He never does find her again.
The title means ‘the sweet life,’ but for Marcello, life is not so sweet. He finally stops being merely a passive participant at these late night gatherings near the end, and decides to become active in the party by humiliating a drunk girl and covering her in feathers. It is a sadistic side of him that, aside from the tift with his fiancé, doesn’t materialize elsewhere in the film. It is here that he physically and violently rejects this world, yet he is stuck with it. He cannot leave.
His encounter with a young and pretty teenager is what accentuates his misery and hopelessness. Her beauty affects him, but she is a child and not something to pursue. The presence of this childish innocence divides the film in half, and then punctuates it by returning at the end during what is, in my opinion, the best ending in Fellini’s career. The girl doesn’t belong to the world of galas and gatherings. The child’s innocent life is not obtainable, but in a different way that the life of Sylvia and the celebrity are unobtainable. The girl tries to talk to Marcello, but he cannot hear her over the noise of the ocean. After muttering and gesturing and getting nowhere, he leaves her with a slight movement of his hand, not quite a wave, and returns to the world to which he belongs and hates. It is a powerful, unsatisfactory, yet beautiful and moving end to a film.
Film Rating: 9/10
The Eye & the Beholder. This is a short featurette about the perspective of the film, beginning with where the girl gazes into the camera. That ending is compared with Godard and Truffault. The narrator also draws attention to a nod from Steiner to the camera that takes place so quickly that you could almost miss it. He then walks into another room and the perspective changes. It is a daring way of acknowledging the narrator, and distancing it from the point of view of Marcello. We are seeing the film partially through the lead characters eyes, but also through our own.
1965 Interview with Fellini. He Does not like to evaluate, analyze or rank his films, but then he does name La Strada and 8 ½ based on where he was in his life. More importantly he talks about why he shouldn’t comment about the meaning of his films The work should speak for itself. His voice clouds the work and interpretation. My favorite part of the interview was when he discusses how film is hypnotic, and you can control heartbeats and how people breath. In that way, film is a certain type of magic.
Lina Wertmuller Interview. Also a Director that would eventually have a successful career, she worked as an Assistance Director with Fellini on La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. She talks about Fellini and what made him tick. Some of her comments were humorous. One out there comment was that he likes asses. Yes, asses, and I don’t mean donkeys. One time he stopped a taxi and got out so that he could an ass. She bought a tiny bikini and that set Fellini off.
Scholar David Forgacs. This is a short, critical look at the film. He talks about how this was a transitional time in Italian history, and how the film juxtaposes the new, vibrant and economic Rome with the ancient history. He uses the opening shot as an example, with the helicopter carrying a statue of Christ over the ancient aqueducts. He talks about the Ekberg performance, and how she had already been a celebrity in Rome while working there, and had been photographed in the fountain. Fellini reconstructed what was a media event.
Antonello Sarno, Italian film journalist. Sarno talks at length about the production details. He talks about how Dino de Laurentis backed out and how Fellini had trouble finding financing. Aside from that, he discusses anecdotal details about the production, such as how the fashions were designed. One interesting story was that there were 1,000 bystanders at the fountain scene. He also talks about the film’s legacy, and how through its popularity, it became a brand, put Italy on the map.
Marcello Mastrioanni Interview. This is an audio interview that shows several still images throughout. Marcello talks about his engagement with the project, and how he had been a working actor in Italy that wanted to do something substantial. He wanted to work with Fellini because of how much he liked his films, especially I Vitelloni.
Criterion Rating: 8/0