The opening sequence of La Grande Bellezza is something to behold. It introduces us to both the film’s fantastic cinematography and the unadulterated modern hedonism that accompany the narrative. The viewer is thrust into a rooftop party overlooking the Colosseum that would make Gatsby himself blush and the screen is drowned by flowing Martini, dazzling colour, and raw promiscuity as inexplicably beautiful middle aged Italians throw shapes to the sound of Bob Sinclair’s latest Italian house beats. It is undeniably intoxicating.
The film tells the story of modern Rome through the eyes of the impeccably dressed Jep Gambardella: writer, journalist and socialite. His insight brings a degree of self-awareness to Roman high society, where pretence rules and humility is often forgotten. His candid narration and incredibly emotive facial expressions give us a privileged view behind the façade of splendour and into the fallibility shared by his colleagues of La Beau Monde and hint at how it must inevitably unravel. What helps this film, alongside the stunning cinematography and beautifully versatile soundtrack, is that Toni Servillo’s Gambardella is funny, charming and honest, making him incredibly likeable.
Sorrentino explores the many facets of Roman society, notably the material excess and spiritual deficiency of the Vatican’s senior representatives. His style harkens back to that of Fellini and De Sica,* a golden age of Italian cinema in the mid-twentieth century, perhaps making a point that many of the characters and Rome itself still live in that idyllic past. La Grande Bellezza is consistently humorous and eminently quotable; there is a declaration at a rooftop dinner party that: ‘the Ethiopian Jazz scene is the only one interesting today.’ The film also takes a jibe at modern performance art: an interview with the fictional Talia Concept (based on Marina Abramović) on her ‘vibrations’ is particularly brilliant. Le Grande Bellezza is stunning to look at, illustrates the magnificent fragility of Roman high society and tells a story of lost love through intelligent dialogue. It is fun, sad and occasionally bloody weird: embrace the oddities, as you won’t regret it.
* I feel I should mention here that I had very little knowledge of Italian cinema before researching this film and I had to be reliably informed that Fellini was neither a cat nor a champagne based cocktail.
By Mark Nathan