La Grande Bellezza (The Grand Beauty) is an exhausting film, full of grandiose set pieces and narratives that take left turns with two wheels in the air. And yet that same extravagance is what makes Paolo Sorentini’s epic tale of Rome’s high society easy to sink into. The film washes over you like silk, a merry-go-round of debauchery and tragedy.
At its foundation, however, La Grande Bellezza is a history lesson. Sorentini’s film follows a quintessentially Italian arc, built most notably by Fellini and Antonioni: long walks, scenes within scenes, and the pervasive impermanence of both life and death. Toni Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, our eyes and ears throughout the film. He’s a journalist and one-time novelist most famous for his decadent parties and lascivious lifestyle.
Sorentini delivers a sharp and unflinching account of the upper class, one marked by excess and waste. It peaks in a dimly lit room crowded by the bourgeoisie. They’re patiently waiting their turn to have their chins lifted and bags removed, pricked by the needle of a famous cosmetic surgeon. Sorentini spoke about the scene at Cannes:
I don’t seem to be able find any beauty in the transformation of bodies through surgery or Botox, but I didn’t want to make a statement or anything like that…behind it there is a lot of pain and sadness, the inability to accept your body and the flowing of time.
Sorentini’s characters are quite literally paralyzed by the pursuit of beauty. It’s a theme that has cropped up in more recent Italian cinema, an insatiability that devours some peripheral part of life. Sorentini uses it for both dramatic and comic effect. Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (2009) offers a more earnest and dangerous interpretation.
As in Guadagnino’s film, there is a darkness in La Grande Bellezza missing from Fellini’s lighthearted carnivals. The golden age is over, and the ravages of time are beginning to set in.