I had the strangest dream. I dreamt that the late Federico Fellini had come back to make one more film awash with art, love, lust and his own street religion of "la dolce vita."
Directed by maestro Paolo Sorrentino, with generous deference to the late Fellini, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) indeed turned out to be more of a communal illusion: Enough members of the Motion Picture Academy have shared the dream to nominate this masterwork as one of Oscar's five contenders for Best Foreign Language Film of the year.
Life is but a dream for The Great Beauty's aging protagonist Jep Gambardella (the dazzling Toni Servillo). When we first meet Jep at his prosecco-fueled 65th birthday party, he seems instantly familiar. In fact, Jep could easily be the Roman cousin to cinema's most conflicted artists: Roy Scheider's Joe Gideon in All That Jazz, or Marcello Mastroianni's Guido Contini in Fellini's 8 ½.
Jep hasn't done much of anything of measure for the better part of 40 years. He's still dining out on fame that he acquired decades ago on the back of his first--and only--novel and has become Rome's so-called "king of the high life." Yet he reserves his most lethal commentary for his closest friends. For example, when one of his guests boasts about her life, he lays her bare:
"Stefania, mother and woman, you're 53 with a life in tatters like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We're all on the brink of despair. "
Yet Jep beds every lovely woman in reach, including the woman he has just derided.
Jep: Have we ever slept together?
Stefania: Of course not.
Jep: That's a big mistake. We must make amends immediately.
But Jep still broods over his lifelong, unsuccessful search for "la grande belleza," the one true beauty of his life. The silliness of it all is that Jep is surrounded by nothing but beauty.
I adore this film; one moment it's a lilting float down the Tiber River; the next it's a hyperkinetic party. There are dozens of times during La Grande Bellezza where you will ask yourself, "How did Sorrentino film that shot?"
But I urge you to put the science of filmmaking on hold and embrace the art.
There has been plenty of buzz about La Grande Bellezza's indictment of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's frivolity and the alleged complicity of Italy's left-wing elite, leading to the country's near-financial ruin. To that, I say, "Assurdita." Nonsense.
And a word of caution: La Grande Bellezza has numerous stops and starts with non sequiturs and complete scenes that fit nowhere into the narrative. Yet taken as a whole, there isn't a frame of this film out of place. It is much like Rome itself: a garden here, a relic there, young couples in passionate embraces there and there.
As Jep slow dances into a Roman sunrise at the climax of La Grande Bellezza, I implore you not rush to the exit; because as the end credits roll, director Sorrentino wraps with one extended shot of the Tiber River at dawn, scored to Vladimir Martynov's "The Beatitudes." It's magnificent. Almost like a dream.
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