Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Great Beauty (orig. La Grande Bellezza) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars) (4 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing*

La Repubblica (N. Aspesi) review

Avvenire (A. D'Avenia) review*

CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. Abrams) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review

The Great Beauty (orig. La Grande Bellezza) [2013] [IMDb] []* (directed and screenplay cowrtten by Paolo Sorrentino [IMDb] []* along with Umberto Contrarello [IMDb] []*) is a critically acclaimed Italian film and making the five finalists for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this year (2014).

Made in a grand style that immediately reminds the viewer of the great Federico Felini's [IMDb] []* films especially La Dulce Vita [1960], the film's about "celebrity," specifically about a particular (fictional) "celebrity" named Giuseppe (Jep) Gambardella (played with magnificent utterly unflappable gentile "worldliness" by Toni Servillo [IMDb] []*).  The reason for his celebrity?  He wrote _a single book_ some 30-40 years before that was a smash, and he's been hanging out at parties, INDEED PRESIDING OVER THEM (or EVEN MORE CORRECTLY GIVING THEM THEIR "IMPRIMATUR") EVER SINCE.

In a key voice-over as his character in a still almost impeccable white-to-beige suit strolls along the bank of the Tiber early one morning (joggers running by BEGINNING THEIR DAY while HIS IS ONLY NOW GENTLY COMING TO AN END) he serenely explains to viewers: "I always wanted to be a mondano (lit. 'a man of the world', IMHO more clearly translated here as 'celebrity'), indeed the KING of the mondanos, ONE who could bring down a party with a single (dismissive/disapproving) glance."  And indeed, ever white/beige suited with martini in hand, he's reigned over Rome's celebrity party scene with the "soft power" gentile despotism of a ("thumbs up / thumbs down") glance that would make both Nero and the Borgias proud ;-).

Indeed, as I watched this film, I was saying to myself THIS IS ROME.  This is what it has been since the time of the Emperors, through the time of those randy (and if also artistically productive) Renaissance Popes through to today.   

As in any great Fellini inspired film, there are some really great, well-drawn/well-acted characters.

There's Jep's friend from childhood probably more productive than Jep ever was, even though NEVER nearly as successful in either work or as we find out ... in love.  His wife Elisa (di Santis) had recently died, and he confesses to Jep: "I can't believe it.  Going through her things, I found her (locked) diary.  Since she's passed now,  I jimmied it open.  You know in 35 years of marriage, she wrote TWO LINES about ME -- that I'm a 'good provider.'  And ... HALF THE DIARY'S ABOUT YOU."  Jep, kinda surprised and yet certainly kinda flattered, replies trying to be comforting to his LIFE-LONG FRIEND, "Well as a writer (mind you Jeb, famous as he was, had ACTUALLY ONLY WRITTEN/PUBLISHED ONE BOOK IN HIS ENTIRE "CAREER" ...) I  can assure you that once one starts writing, what one puts down on paper is really, above all, fantasy.  So what she wrote in her (private) diary doesn't really have much to do with reality" (and yet, we know, of course, THAT IT DOES ... Jeb's kinda right. People do write all sorts of things in a diary that they'd NEVER want/expect to be read "outside," BUT that diary almost certainly reflected the private truths of her life, no matter what her outward, public actions of her life may have said otherwise).  So WHY would the wife of Jeb's best friend from youth spend "1/2 her diary" writing about Jeb?  Of course there's a story to that ... BUT since this IS an elegant Italian film, the story's actually far more subtle (and arguably poignant) than one could initially (with "eyes rolling") believe ...

Then there's another long-time  friend of Jep who he seemed to meet in the writing/artistic circles when he first came out to Rome who has an interesting problem.  Presumably in his early 70s, he's still taking care of his very well kept, still on an allowance, 50 year old (!) daughter Ramona (IMHO played magnificently by Sabrina Ferilli [IMDb] []*  Note here that I have something of a soft-spot for Sabrina Ferilli as she was the (voluptuous)/glamorous not-quite Sophia Loren [IMDb] []*-like actress (but honestly oh, so close...;-) in Italy during my seminary days back in the mid 1990s) who he laments is trying, at 50 (!), to "breaking into" the "showgirl" business as a "sophisticated stripper."  Now SHE sounds like Jep's kind of woman ;-) and so the two have something of a fling during the middle portion of the film.  And Ramona (as well as Sabrina Ferilli [IMDb] []* playing her) certainly shows (quite discretely filmed actually) what _really good_ (and _really expensive_) skin care can achieve these days ;-).

Then, what's a really good Federico Fellini style film without presence of the Church?  It's represented in this film (about the celebrity life of Rome) by two REALLY WELL DRAWN/ACTED (though, of course, exaggerated) characters.

The first is the ever "in his uniform" (black-cassock/pectoral cross/red-hat) "celebrity cardinal" named Cardinale Belluci (played magnificently and ever with a smile by Roberto Herlizka [IMDb] []*) who's also a jovial fixture in Rome's celebrity circuit having made it "in" through apparently writing a series of "cooking books" (though I smile, I also wince as the Cardinal's "cooking book schtick" is not  altogether "a planet away..." from "a priest writing a (hopefully somewhat insightful) BLOG ABOUT MOVIES" ;-) ;-)).  Both smiling, both holding martinis, it's clear that "writer Jep" and "the cooking cardinal" don't much like each other ;-). 

And then there is AN ANCIENT (104 year old) Mother Teresa-like Missionary Nun already dubbed "Santa" (played fantastically and largely in pantomime as, for goodness' sake, she's supposed to be 104 years old, by Giusi Merli [IMDb] []*) who's arrived in Rome after DECADES of MISSIONARY WORK / RUNNING ORPHANAGES IN AFRICA on PILGRIMAGE to climb ON HER HANDS AND KNEES the "Scala Sancta (Holy Steps)."

Now Scala Sancta (Holy Steps) is an actual and IMHO quite poignant shrine (that I've visited / seen with my own eyes) located just outside the Lateran Basilica in Rome  By ancient tradition, the "Scala Sancta" is said to be the stone staircase in Pontius Pilate's Praetorium in Jerusalem on which Jesus would have walked on Good Friday during his trial by Pontius Pilate after his arrest.  Of all the relics that Emperor Constantine's mother Saint Helen brought back from Jerusalem and the Holy Land, I've always thought that THIS ONE (a fairly large, 30-40 step stone staircase) was among those most authentic.  (It would be too big for the Romans to completely destroy during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and it'd be again TOO BIG to bother "faking" for Saint Helen afterwards (after all, she had it packed-up and shipped from Jerusalem to Rome in 326 AD).

So at 104, after many decades "in the field," Sour Santa comes to Rome on pilgrimage to climb the steps of the Scala Sancta on her hands and knees.  Well, when she comes to Rome, OLD as she is, she does come as "something of a celebrity" AND "the celebrity circle" of Rome (both INSIDE and OUTSIDE of the Church ...) certainly want to welcome her.  So the Church organizes solemn audiences and the "mondani" parties.  And though she is 104, she's there (or at least wheeled/delivered there ...) for all these "festivities."

NOW IT TURNS OUT, that Suor Santa "knows" good ole Jep.  Why?  Well SHE READ HIS (ONE) BOOK "back in the day" 35 some years ago (when she was last in Rome).  SO he's actually ONE OF THE FEW PEOPLE SHE ACTUALLY HAS SOMETHING TO SAY TO.

What does she say?  She asks him: "Why didn't you ever write another book?" ;-) ;-).  Telling him that she liked the first one ;-).

Still holding his martini, still kinda smiling, but certainly a little shaken, Jep answers, "Dear Sister, I guess it had something to do with _climbing another set of stairs_."

The last sequence of the film, which follows shortly, juxtaposes the 104 year old nun making her way on her hands and knees up the Scala Sancta with "the stairs" that Jep was talking about.

Now what was that "other staircase" that Jeb refers to?  Well, as I've already noted above, this is ultimately an _elegant_ (and as it comes to its end approaching _poignant_) Italian film.  Hence, it's not necessarily what you'd expect.  Even if "writer / mondano Jep" spent much of his life living an UTTERLY SUPERFICIAL LIFE it does seem that (as it has across the whole arc of the story) there's "more to his story" just that.

It may all add-up to a rather extravagant (and perhaps still "rather lame...") apology for superficiality but nevertheless IT IS A VERY, VERY WELL MADE ONE ;-).  And it _leaves one_ with "a fair amount" to think about.  Great film!

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