One way to make a film memorable is to makes its setting unforgettable. That is definitely the route that The Great Beauty (the Oscar-nominated film that many experts are tipping as the favorite to win Best Foreign Language Film) chose as its Rome setting is on full display. As it explores Roman art, nightlife and everything that makes the city a unique experience it is easy to get lost in this film (in a very good way). However, as the film focuses on the journey of its main character the film ends up getting lost in a much worse way. The film can certainly be ambitious in its character journey but that journey is so muddled and, at times, over-the-top that it is difficult to enjoy.
The Great Beauty follows Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a writer who has been able to make an expensive living off of his one great work, on the day of his 65th birthday. In the days following he suffers a three-quarters life crisis as he tries to remember what made his life in Rome so special. The film is directed by Paolo Sorrentino (director of the Sean Penn film This Must Be the Place) and is written by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello (Sorrentino’s frequent collaborator).
The Great Beauty takes a while to get going as it gets lost in the extravagance of Rome and Jep. However, as Jep finally gets built up as a character that extravagance ends up becoming one of the highlights of the film. There is a lot of showy directing coming from Sorrentino, and it easily could have gone wrong (as it kind of does in the opening ten minutes) but Sorrentino includes enough moments of quietness to make it work. That being said this is a very dense film when it gets to its storyline. It has a lot to say about Jep and how life should be lived. Unfortunately, this comes across as confusing rather than enlightening.
That being said there are some really great performances in this film. Toni Servillo is asked to carry the entire film and he makes it look easy. There’s not a moment of hammy acting coming from Servillo despite the craziness going around him. He ends up making the questionable characterization of Jep more tolerable and almost makes me invested in the questions that the film asks about him. The reasons why I don’t ultimately become invested are definitely within the script and not within this fine performance. The supporting cast is also filled with strong performances but I want to bring special attention to Galatea Ranzi who almost steals the film with only a couple of scenes. She plays an acquaintance of Jep and knocks one scene out of the park in which she gets into a heated argument with Jep. It was also nice to see the subtle transformation of her character’s relationship with Jep. I just wish she got more screen time as she is by far the most interesting character in the film.
The Great Beauty is quite frustrating but there is still beauty to be found within it.