Friday, November 15, 2013

36th Starz Denver Film Festival: The Great Beauty (2013)

Populated by the debauched, disenchanted or simply disinterested elite of Roman society – that is, by a decadent and fading aristocracy, counterfeit art-world celebrities, and endlessly prattling priests – Paolo Sorrentino’s latter-day Babylon revolves around Jep Gambardella (the great Toni Servillo in a career-defining performance), a successful journalist and frustrated former novelist with an acerbic wit and irresistible charm. Jep and his social circle are joined first in a pulsing discotheque on the occasion of the former's sixty-fifth birthday, an event that is celebrated with exuberant group choreography and conspicuous kitsch. So begins The Great Beauty’s (La Grande Belleza, 2013) unending progression of chic dinners, all-night bacchanalias and casual hook-ups, with Jep, “the king of the high life,” perpetually present as both participant and observer.

Borrowing both its decadent Roman subject and its episodic narrative structure, The Great Beauty stands as a soaringly ambitious and spectacularly successful update of Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece, La Dolce Vita. Where Sorrentino’s luridly contemporary refashioning – a refreshing, in the image of 2008’s Il Divo, that obliquely speaks to the cascading corruptions of the Silvio Berlusconi era – departs most from the Fellini original, is in the age of its hero: the sentimental, lost love-obsessed Jep is two decades older than Mastroianni’s Marcello. Sorrentino’s sprawling feature is, in this respect, a decidedly Proustian affair, with Jep's man of supreme sensibility providing a modern-day stand-in for the French author's Marcel - while the appearance of his younger self, in an ingenious aquatic flashback, serves to replicate or at least echo the novelist's fluid structure of remembrance.

Though perhaps a shade less baroque than Sorrentino’s preceding David Lynch-inspired corpus (see 2006’s The Family Friend), the outstanding The Great Beauty remains a work of intoxicating stylization, with short lateral tracking shots and frontal framings joined by brisk montage. The film’s contrastive sacred and secular musical cues separately serve to bring out the contradictions of a Rome that is no less Sorrentino’s city-symphonic subject. A sizable leap forward, ultimately, for the director of the very fine The Consequences of Love (2004), The Great Beauty represents a viable contender for film of the year.

The Great Beauty screens at the Sie Film Center tomorrow, November 16, at 1:00 PM, with Sorrentino present to receive Maria and Tommaso Maglione Italian Filmmaker Award. Janus Films is distributing the feature in North America, with dates confirmed for Denver (11/29) and Minneapolis, among other cities. The above review has been adapted from my original 36 SDFF program notes.

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