This time Sorrentino has made a film that in a way can be seen as some sort of ode to Federico Fellini, as its story is a sort of cross between 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita. As in 8 ½ the hero, writer Jep Gambardella (superbly played by Toni Servillo), is reminiscing all the women in his life (though notably the one who got away) as well as dealing with the ones in his current life, and like in La Dolce Vita what we have here is also a sort of portrait of modern-day Rome, at least the high-class part of it.
La Grande Bellezza is in fact an incredibly ambitious sprawling epic of sorts, it doesn’t really have much of a plot and is rather a series of vignettes and anecdotes that are tied together by its protagonist. The tone is, intentionally, all over the place, with many abrupt tonal shifts ranging from campy and highly energetic comedy to tragic melodrama. It’s also deliberately artificial and pretentious at times, as it’s in a way a movie about artifice and pretension (among many other things). The lives of the rich and famous are very much defined by these two words.
Sorrentino has always been an energetic and showy director and La Grande Belleza is no exception. It starts off quietly with a choir of women singing in an old, Italian tourist site, with japanese tourists looking on (as if Sorrentino is saying that the old Italy is strictly for tourists now) and is followed by an extremely fun-filled, decadent party scene, complete with strippers, loud techno music and cocaine and (almost) everyone having the time of their lives. Sorrentino cuts fast and his camera is all over the place (in people’s faces, under the crowd, over the crowd, through the crowd, etc.) and rarely stops moving, nicely encapsulating the bustling city of Rome and the extravagance of modern Italy.
What La Grande Bellezza may be most of all is a sort of portrait of Italy (is Italy the great beauty of its title?). The word “Belleza” may refer to a certain Italian phenomenon that’s in fact a job title in the country. “Bellezas” are women whose job it is to simply smile and be pretty in television and public appearances, a sign of the extravagant shallowness of Berlusconi’s Italy. Politics don’t play a big part on the surface here (unlike his last Italian film Il Divo, which was biopic on Italy’s former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, also played by Servillo) but there’s hints of it scattered around the movie, for instance when Jep realizes he’s been living next door to a wanted terrorist for many years without even knowing it.
Final verdict: La Grande Bellezza is the kind of movie where its flaws can also be seen as virtues and probably needs to be seen more than once to be fully absorbed. It’s an epic portrait of one man and one city; stylish, provocative, beautiful, sad and funny with a superb performance by Toni Servillo at it’s center. It’s also messy, long and pretentious, but deliberately so, at least to a certain extent.