Opening with a literal bang from a cannon and proceeding into an over-the-top party sequence, Paolo Sorrentino lets you know from the start that nothing will be held back in his latest, "La Grande Bellezza." After breaking out on the international scene with "The Consequences of Love" and "Il Divo," and then taking a jaunt into English language filmmaking with 2011's "This Must Be The Place," Sorrentino returns to his native country, for a Fellini-esque tale that isn't so much a story as a set of impressions. Life, love, philosophy, religion are just some of his subjects in an indulgent but heady piece of cinema, from a singularly distinctive voice.
Toni Servillo reteams with Sorrentino to take the lead role of Jep Gambardella, a one time author turned journalist and socialite who, following his recent 65th birthday, reflects on the life he's lived...and the one he could have lived. This leads into to a study of Rome itself, of whether the city and the country has lived up to its promise, of what the future might hold, and although Sorrentino doesn't seem all that optimistic, he has a helluva time telling the story.
Parties, visits to nighttime haunts, performance pieces (earning one of the movie's biggest laughs), flashbacks to his first love and more serve as the backdrop to the movie, which moves like a dream, less with a plot and more a propelled non-linear trip through self-reflection. Having had success with his first novel, Jep has never followed it up with another, though has no reason why. He also regrets never having had children, having never settled down with one woman long enough to do so. On the downward slope of his life, Jep wonders if the failures are his own or part of Italian society at large.
"Nostalgia is the only feeling left for those who have no faith in the future," Jep's best friend notes, and indeed Sorrentino plays the violin loudly for the past. Contemporary art is literally compared to the manic emotions of a young child throwing paint onto a canvas, an extended sequence centered on plastic surgery is an unsubtle commentary on contemporary obsession with youth, and the general wisdom put forth is that things that are older are better...or is Jep an unreliable narrator?
Sorrentino knows that Jep -- played with a perfect blend of tempered gentleman, suave womanizer and wise, well traveled man by Servillo -- has also frittered away his own talents. He's constantly asked about when he'll write another book, and he's quick to judge his friends, without seeing the emptiness he has surrounded himself with. He's almost a Jay Gatsby-like figure, building around himself a monument that is opulently empty. But the movie itself does revel in evoking classic Italian cinema, and does revere the architecture, artwork and overall memory of Italy of old; it's no surprise when the Costa Concordia is shown looming the background of one shot, underscored as a reminder of the country's current failures.
Not all of this works. Reaching nearly two and a half hours, "La Grande Bellezza" does overstay its welcome (how many party scenes do you need?) It does feel more indulgent than this kind of picture (i.e. about indulgence) can be forgiven for. Sorrentino also seems to have an uncomfortable relationship to ethic groups, as Japanese, Mexican and Middle Easterners get some rather broad characterizations, and that's saying something in a picture that certainly paints broad strokes of Italians themselves. Do those groups not fit into contemporary Italy? What is Sorrentino saying about them? He's not exactly clear, and one wishes that message would have been finessed a little bit better.
That said, that is something enjoyable about the messy, bloated "La Grande Bellezza." In exploring the regret of what could have been done, it simultaneously celebrates what has been done in one's life. It sees the folly in trying to understand missed opportunities and paths never taken, and it does so with humor that is often bitingly funny and grace, which is elegantly played. The score by Lele Marchitelli also adds an elegiac and wistful tone that helps carry the emotional core of the movie, a core Sorrentino himself doesn't always manage to find in the opulence of his effort.
Just like Fellini's grand spectacles, "La Grande Bellezza" washes over you in series of scenes, visages, sensations and impressions, and although in this case it doesn't quite gel into a cohesive whole, it's nonetheless a journey worth taking; a travelogue through memory and dreams, in which life is greatest fiction we could ever create. [B]