With just a week left in the year, I thought it worthwhile, as a way to survey what has transpired in movies during that time, to focus on some of the best performances, writing, acting and cinematography in fiction and nonfiction cinema.
I just took a second look of Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, and I realized I seriously underestimated the movie when I first caught it in the competition at Cannes. Now, as then, one part is unchanged, and that is the magnificence of Toni Servillo’s lead performance.
This is the fourth film I have seen by Sorrentino (three in close collaboration with Servillo), and I think this is by far the best. The movie has verve and tenacity, like the opening shot, originating deep in the turret of a cannon and bursting out, announcing a dazzling and cool flair injected with just the right mixture of daring, aplomb and grace.
The movie has been shortlisted as one of the nine finalists for the best foreign language Academy award. After his fascinating though artistically failed English-language debut, This Must Be the Place, Sorrentino works in a more comfortable and fluid register; he and Servillo paint a lavish, colorful and also despairing portrait of Rome's decadent and gilded upper class.
From the Celine quotation from Journey to the End of the Night ("Our journey is entirely imaginary") that opens the film to the ravishing ending, the new work is existential in the best sense, concerned with the way people live, foolishly, hypnotically, but also tenderly and filled with sorrow and heartbreak.
The movie has a serpentine quality in the way it snakes around, at times seemingly amorphous, with little connecting the picaresque episodes, but it all holds together. The primary reason for that is Servillo. In a variation of Marcello Mastroianni's world-weary journalist from Federico Fellini's La dolce vita, Servillo is Jep Gambardella, a formerly promising novelist who now administers to Rome's privileged elite, going to parties, museum openings, theater and political gatherings.
Years removed from his novel that made him a literary star, he is older though razor sharp in his observations and pronunciations. His voice, commanding and authoritorial, has just the right timbre, jaundiced, questioning and fleet, like his perfectly captured exasperation at a sexually brazen performance artist whose tendency to reference herself in the third person benumbs him.
Interestingly enough, one advantage of seeing the film again allowed another connection to Mastroianni take flight, the artist and writer from Michelangelo Antonioni’s La notte, the middle piece of his remarkable loose trilogy.
Having also just watched the Antonioni film in the beautiful new high-definition video edition from Criterion, I was struck by the parallels, of character, fate and temperament binding both characters. The period of the Antonioni film, the early nineteen-sixties, coincides with Jep’s arrival in Rome, where as the author of a short novel, The Human Apparatus, he set the literary scene ablaze.
The powerful and the aspiring class all congregate around Jep. In its searching, probing introspection, Jep must return to the question of why he never followed up his novel with anything more substantial and ambitious. He says, walking pensively along a riverbank at dusk after one of his typical nights out, that the whirlpool of the life consumed him and he could not liberate himself from the temptation.
The movie, interestingly, has no real plot to speak. It is really constructed as an arabesque, or mosaic, like a Robert Altman film, filtered through mood, style and the speaking rhythms of the different player. The governing shape is provided by Servillo, who is quite simply, one of great actors working in cinema anywhere in the world.
Jep is rarely appealing emotionally, yet Servillo's line readings, body language and aristocratic bearing make him compulsively watchable. He is the kind of actor you listen closely and attentively, just to make sure you catch everything. It's a marvelously assured and penetrating part, like the way he responds, having gently scolded a female colleague who accuses him of being a misogynist, he corrects her: “I’m a misanthropist.”
Like the director's previous Italian-language Il divo, which depended on an insider's knowledge of Italian political history to fully appreciate, The Great Beauty is about rebuking attitudes and ideas. Sorrentino's movies are all political on some level, and this is probably the most biting and ferocious in getting at the peculiar sterility and emptiness of Berlusconi's Italy.
The movie’s dominant mood is one of sorrow, like the beautiful though vulnerable woman, a companion of Jep’s, still working in the local sex industry, and admitting all of her earnings go toward healing herself, or the quietly debilitating recurring putdown of a friend, an aspiring writer, whose sadness is reflected in his desperate pursuit of a young actress wholly ill-suited to his own needs.
The movie is literary in the best sense, shaped by a Proustian regret about lost time and an Eden irretrievably lost, reflected in the melancholy way Jep negotiates his own past to remember the beautiful young woman whose love he neither appreciated nor fully understood.
The lush visual style smoothes over some of the rough or indifferently plotted parts. Pretty much every frame of the movie bursts with activity, of color and style. The cinematography of Luca Bigazzi is vibrant and alive and always particular to the moment. The images and sounds pop off, providing a perfectly immersive and entrancing experience.
It’s the bravura and spellbinding Toni Servillo who gives it all meaning and value.
Image courtesy of Janus Films.