La grande bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

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La grande bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (a.k.a. The great beauty, 2013).

Score: contemplative.

Some works of art are born looking at another work of art. Admiring it, wanting to revive it, to make it eternal, to tell the world how much it meant to the creator. Some works of art are born grabbing the ankle of that masterpiece that came before: La grande bellezza came into the world grabbing La dolce vita’s ankle.

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a sexagenarian socialite in present-day Rome. He writes for a magazine, parties all night and sleeps all day. Forty years ago, he wrote a novel that went unnoticed and everybody keeps asking why he never wrote another one. It might be because he spent those forty years too busy trying to find trascendence in the unredeemably banal.

La grande bellezza is made of vignettes so brief and minimalistic they might as well be social network posts and lavish panning shots of Roman iconic locations so painfully beautiful they might as well be pornographic. We get glimpses of the life around Jep: his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone), trying to make it big as a playwright and begging for the love of his abusive, narcissistic girlfriend; his Platonic romance with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the forty-something stripper; Botox parties, priests and nuns right next to drugs and orgies; children raised by butlers while their parents are out for dinner.

Unlike La dolce vita, La grande bellezza is ambiguous about whether it loves or despises the void debauchery it portrays. It’s probably both. The past century has really made artists lose interest in trascendence; we’ve become so hedonistic we look at these people drinking, smoking and arguing that they’re the greatest artist in the room and don’t think much of it.

For obvious reasons, the debauchery needed to be amped up. Having sex at a prostitute’s house is no longer enough, we need to introduce things like a middle-aged stripper who works at her father’s club; he’s disappointed she doesn’t like drugs, since they would have a hobby in common, then. The fake miracle scene is updated as an interaction with an elderly nun, clearly alluding to Teresa of Calcutta.

All in all, desperately beautiful and a love letter to the void, to all those things we desperately want to give meaning to our lives but simply won’t.

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