Life as Art

This is my review of The Great Beauty [DVD] [2013].

The “Great Beauty” is the Rome that tourists too often miss, with sunlight playing on fountains and ancient intricate carvings, the haunting voices of choirs floating from balconies, children playing tag with white-robed nuns in lush green gardens glimpsed through stone archways.

Wealthy writer Jep Gambardella knows Rome well, but his appreciation of its beauty is heightened when, in the middle of his extravagant 65th birthday party he is struck by the decadence and vacuity of his life. Later, in post-dinner balcony drinks, the shallowness and empty pretentiousness of so-called close friends becomes almost intolerable. The death of a long-lost girl friend who apparently always loved him from a distance may also remind him of what might have been.

Made sharply aware that time is running out on his dilettante life, Jep does not do much about it, apart from take up with an ageing stripper with a heart, mocked by his snobbish friends for her name Ramona and choice of a see-through dress on her first outing with him. Great beauty seems inseparable from moments of soft porn. Apart from making a visually stunning film, full of people with striking features, often reduced to “living works of art” in their designer costumes, I am unsure what the director Sorrentino is trying to achieve. I would have liked more of a plot, and although I do not mind a film that is largely about visual design combined with music and a few witty comments, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, this is not quite enough to sustain one’s interest, plus the frenetic partying became oppressive. Watching all this began to seem perhaps more questionable than the privileged self-delusion and emptiness of the existences lived out in the film.

I felt I could not win with this film which is overlong and rambling yet leaves embedded in the mind the same powerful visual images you would get from visiting a gallery of remarkable artworks. Walking out mid-way would leave a sense of having missed out on memorable scenes. Sitting it out may seem like a waste of time: one “gets the message” in the first half, and then there is nowhere else to go. I was a little disappointed that Sorrentino focuses on the idle rich, and does not show us the beauty of ordinary lives, despite their pain and disappointment.

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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