BY ERIN TORRANCE
I’m not usually one for subtitles. I’m a slow reader; I find it hard to actually watch the film and keep up with the dialogue, so I had my reservations going into this film, but this film proved worth the challenge.
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) is truthful, lyrical, biting and lavish—even if not much happens. The film follows the daily struggles of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a wordsmith who became famous after writing a critically acclaimed novelette at the age of 25 and settled into life as a journalist. After his novelette gained attention and he started to rise in the social ranks, his goal was to become the pillar of upper-class society—the one who could make a party a success or bring it crashing down.
At 65, he has seemingly achieved this goal, but when he finds out that the love of his life—the one who got away—has died hiding the truth that she believed Jep was her true love, Jep begins his search to find the beauty he discovered the night he spent with her. And this is the reason he gives for never having written a second novel—because he couldn’t find the great beauty. Jep sees that world quite differently now than he did when penning his last work. As the melancholic observer of the “wildlife” who surround him, the raucous and arrogant upper-class and self-righteous artists, he sees the world as menial and “blah, blah, blah.”
There’s no doubt that Servillo’s performance pushes this film forward; he is Jep Gambardella. Every word, every look contributes to the creation of this character who captivates you. And because La Grande Bellezza is one of those films in which not much happens, the majority of the film falls on the shoulders of the main character—if you don’t like him, you probably won’t like the film; if you love him, you’ll love the film. And this is where I seem to struggle with this review. There isn’t one specific moment, conversation or aspect of this film that I can label as its one pitfall. I just didn’t have such a strong reaction to Servillo’s character as I might usually have, so as a viewer, I seemed to float through the film, just watching what happens and not hoping for one certain outcome.
But perhaps this is another one of the film’s strengths—the ability to create a character that is presented in such a way as to not create a bias, to not push the audience to believe in good or bad, but just human. Sorrentino allows the characters to just be, to keep their secrets and only reveal what they choose to reveal.
Add to this the breathtaking cinematography and direction by Paolo Sorrentino. The lighting in this film is gorgeous and the performances by all the other actors so honest. Every character in this film is natural and true, even when they appear to be overly flamboyant or fake. Sonia Gessner’s performance as 104-year-old Sister Maria is one that stands out for me, especially, along with Galatea’s Ranzi as Stefania, a woman with overwhelming conviction.
La Grande Bellezza seems to strike a perfect balance between all of these aspects.
Coming into this review, I was prepared to rate La Grande Belleza somewhere in the B range because I was thinking that it really didn’t move me the way most films would; typing these last few words, I find that’s just not true. I felt it all, but Sorrentino allowed me to experience this film naturally, without force, which is what makes this a quietly astounding work.