What is meant by ‘the real world’ and do any of us really want to live there? Jep Gambardella has reached the grand age of 65 and is beginning to dislike the shallow pretentious world he inhabits. Gambardella is a writer who works for an arts magazine and who seems to know every one who’s rich and famous. He recalls in voiceover how, arriving in Rome from Naples at the tender age of 26 he fell into ‘the vortex of high society’ "But I didn't want to simply be a socialite. I wanted to become the king of socialites. And I succeeded. I didn't just want to attend parties. I wanted the power to make them fail" A withering portrait of the city of Rome seen through the eyes of one of its inhabitants who lives the proverbial life of luxury.
This weeks Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre Film Club showing, Le grande bellezza or to give it its English title, The Grand Beauty (2013) premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and is the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards. Rachel Findlay our Film Club web site creator introduced the film and lead the discussion following its screening. Rachel began by giving the well-attended audience a little background to the director. The 43 year old Naples born Italian film director Paolo Sorrentino is best known for his portrait of the former, seven times, prime minister of Italy, Giulio Andreotti in the 2008 biographical drama film II Divo. Other films of note have been 2004’s Consequences of Love, a psychological thriller about a lonely and secretive Italian businessman living in a Swiss hotel. His first English language film This Must be the Place (2011) starred Sean Penn as a middle aged wealthy rock star who becomes bored in his retirement and decides to track down the Nazi war criminal who tormented his father. The director does tend to favour working with the same people, for instance the star of The Grand Beauty Toni Servillo has appeared in four of his films and the cinematographer Luca Bigazzi has know worked besides Sorrentino on five occasions. It is alleged that the death of the directors parents in an automobile accident when he was in his teens has affected his film work in which his main characters tend to be people whose best days are behind them.
The film opens with the collapse of a Japanese tourist who is on a guided tour of the wonders of the great city of Rome. This opening shot takes place around the church of San Pietro in Montorio and is beautifully composed between the voice’s of the choir and the beauty of the location, it’s the doorway into the splendor and lushness of the remainder of this film which for me out weighs everything else in Sorrentino’s body of work to date. From there we are brought to Jep’s 65 birthday celebrations and we witness an amazingly choreographed parade of the invited guests dancing to a powerful techno beat, one which incidentally puts similar scenes in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby to shame.
Like all the critiques I have read most of the RBC’s audience seemed to love the film especially the gentleman that had come all the way from Carlisle to view it for the third time. There is to be honest so much in this film that more than one viewing is absolutely essential. It touches on lives that sit at the pinnacle of Rome’s decedent high society previously observed in films like Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) or Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). In fact in my opinion it mirrors the unpredictability of Fellini’s films, almost homage or tribute to the legendary Italian director.
The film is full of wonderful characters including the struggling middle aged actor Romano played by Carlo Verdone who is still enamored with Jep's first and only novel The Home Apparatus, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola) who is Jeb's straight talking editor and Ramona (the beautiful Italian actress Sabrina Ferilli) the daughter of an old friend who is still removing her clothes in a nightclub at the age of 42. Last but not least we have to mention the 105-year-old Sister Maria (Giusi Merli) who looks as though she has not eaten a decent meal in years, living a life for the benefit of the poor, quite the reverse from many of the other characters in the film.
This latest movie confirms what many critics have been saying that Paolo Sorrentino has established himself as one of cinemas most confident stylist. His trademark use of music to distinctly underline what we see on screen and not just used as an aside. The appropriate use of soundtrack music can enhance a film if done in the correct manner, as it is this case with this film. Another characteristic of his work is filming in wide format to enhance the composition and beauty of the shoot. This blog ends, as does the film, with the opening lines of Jep Gambardella first novel in twenty years: “Everything ends with death. But before, there is life. Hidden underneath the blah blah blah, buried under the chatter and noise, silence and emotion, emotion and fear – the tiny, sporadic flashes of beauty” Infrequent as they are!