The Great Beauty: a film about nothing
September 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
Paolo Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love (2006) held out a promise of renewal for Italian cinema: a stylish, controlled film in which a craven Mafia accountant, banished from Italy as punishment for a costly financial blunder, is doomed to an eternity of money laundering from the purgatory of a Swiss hotel, only to have will and spirit restored by falling in love. Il Divo (2008), a baroque fantasia on the political career of Giulio Andreotti, deserved its international success. In between these two highlights I saw The Family Friend (2005) and hoped that this disturbingly misogynist film was an aberration, a careless succumbing to the taints of the corrupt world it seemingly condemned. Sorrentino’s talents are evident in his new film, The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), but I cannot share the reviewers’ mass enthusiasm. This is no masterpiece.
The Great Beauty has been hailed as portraying the excess and decadence of Berlusconi’s Italy through its updating of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a film that, together with the release of Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, made 1960 a landmark year for Italian cinema. There are some parallels: Mastroianni’s playboy journalist figure has a worthy analogue in Toni Servillo, an actor of prodigious skill and versatility; both films have an episodic structure and a chaos of characters and stories. But Sorrentino’s zoo of socialites, strippers, performance artists and hard up aristocrats who rent themselves out as social fixtures are soft targets for satire. Fellini’s film had force and an originality of style that remains startling 50 years on. It indicted a passionless society and the sordid manipulations of its media, it scandalised the Catholic Church. Now, when despite its own scandals, the Catholic Church in Italy still exerts enormous influence on politics and cultural life, Sorrentino invites us to giggle at a party-going, food-obsessed Cardinal and an almost mummified celebrity nun, with other grotesques thrown in for the sake of Fellini-effect.
Servillo’s character, Jep, 65 and still a magnet to women, is everywhere the languid, sardonic observer, in particular at rooftop parties whose frenzied dancing and lavish surroundings are literally spectacular. With their lurid orgiastic images and high-energy disco beat these early scenes at once make the audience physically complicit in the film’s sensory impact, which accumulates with ever greater insistence.
Jep’s own roof terrace faces the Colosseum, the largest monument to the decadence and cruelties of ancient Rome. We see him move through the city, its splendours a setting for various encounters with old acquaintances. Here the spectacle is silent, the beauty dizzying: night-time tours of grand palazzi and the Capitoline museums, where antique sculptures look on, and Raphael’s bare-breasted Fornarina smiles in the dark. A moonlit giraffe stands in a ruined arena and its keeper, who does magic tricks, happens to be yet another long-lost friend, all of them men with something to say that’s listened to with attention. Jep’s encounters with women are another story, largely prompting mockery or disdain. The only “honest” woman he can find, having given short shrift to dilettantish artists and writers, is a charismatic stripper. Now there’s a cliché that puts women in their place, and a misogyny so unmistakable and yet so casual that Sorrentino would probably disclaim it, just as his protagonist does when challenged.
The film begins in nihilist vein with a quotation from Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. It ends with repeated reference to Flaubert’s famous wish to write “a book about nothing” – not as nihilistic as it sounds, but an aspiration to mastery of style, whereby a book with negligible subject matter “… would be held together by the inner force of its style”. Style is certainly what you get here, but it’s overreaching, full of tricks: jump cuts that catch you out, glibly surreal moments, feints to make you hold your breath in the hovering presence of death.
Death doesn’t just hover, it descends, more than once, and the cynical tone gives way to that of the semi-serious memento mori, but it’s an afterthought, a belated gloss on the ugliness, when Jep tells us that all is vanity, that we can only live for the beauty before the darkness that comes to us all. He’s a flimsy purveyor of wisdom, worldly or otherwise, and the film is hollow, indulging, flashily and with artificial shock value, in the spectacle of which it purports to be a critique. There are enough hints to suggest that Sorrentino knows this. It’s a film about nothing.
Italy’s current ills and excess did not begin with Berlusconi’s rule. It’s worth revisiting a film Fellini made in 1986: Ginger and Fred, in which an ageing dance duo, played by Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina, are reunited for a reality TV show (Italy led the way in TV deregulation and the resulting deluge of dross). It’s a poignant, gentle film that expresses more sorrow than anger at the triumph of consumerism and its overbearing vulgarity.