By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 30, 2013)
It doesn’t take long for the Fellini influences to burble to the surface in Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza (“The Great Beauty”). The viewer is immediately thrown into the midst of a huge, frenetic birthday party in honor of 65 year-old writer Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo), and we are definitely freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball with some of the more oddly-featured and garishly-attired denizens of Rome’s upper-crust literati. Although many decades have passed since the singular success of his sole novel, Jeb has ingratiated himself into Rome’s high society over the ensuing years as a glib arts critic, serial womanizer and entertaining gadfly at parties (when accused of being a misogynist, Jep retorts that he is much more open-minded…he prefers to be addressed as a misanthrope).
However, Jeb’s ebullient birthday mood is about to get quashed. When an old acquaintance he has long lost touch with (and who ended up marrying Jep’s teenage sweet heart) contacts him out of the blue to share the news that his wife has died, Jep has an unexpected reaction, triggering a deep malaise. He begins to take stock of the self-indulgent pursuits that he and fellow members of Rome’s idle class indulge in to distract themselves from the shallowness of their lives. The ensuing existential travelogue snaking through Italy’s ever-cinematic capital begs comparisons with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, as well as Antonioni’s La Notte, another drama about a Rome-based writer in crisis.
While beautifully photographed and cannily evocative of a certain surreal, free-associative style of film-making that flourished in the 1960s (even if the narrative is set in contemporary Bunga Bunga Rome), Sorrentino’s film left me ambivalent. Interestingly, it was very similar to the way I felt in the wake of Eat Pray Love. In my review of that film, I relayed my inability to empathize with what I referred to as the “Pottery Barn angst” on display. It’s that plaintive wail of the 1%: “I’ve got it all, and I’ve done it all and seen it all, but something’s missing…oh, the humanity!” It’s not that I don’t understand our protagonist’s belated pursuit of truth and beauty; it’s just that Sorrentino fails to make me care enough to make me want to tag long on this noble quest for 2 hours, 22 minutes.