The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

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“Sumptuously sensual, crammed with gusto, vitality, spectacle, and invention, The Great Beauty (2013) is also a cautionary tale about the heedless pursuit of pleasure. Director Paolo Sorrentino pulls out all the stops visually, layering one stunning, eye-opening image onto another. But for all this, the film is also, paradoxically, austere and rigorous.” ~Phillip Lopate, Columbia University

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Here is Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, the writer who is at the center of the film. He narrates bits of his life, his surroundings, the details of Rome and its privileged crowd’s existence, beginning with his sixty-fifth birthday celebration.

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But scenes change quickly from one to another, much as the mood of the film swings from somber to exuberant. Unexpectedly, we are thrust into an outdoor theater where a naked woman runs full force into a brick wall which makes the audience gasp; but, not turn away. This, for them, is entertainment.

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As Jeb contemplates his life he is less likely to be moved sexually as he is in his search for answers. Why did Elisa leave him in 1970? He never finds out, any more than he finds an answer to spiritual questions from a cardinal who leaves Jeb standing there while he goes off hunting for skunk.

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Although the film had many strange scenes, such as this child creating a work of art before a crowd of spectators, while crying because she is forced to do so, it was at the same time compelling. The shots of Rome were spectacular, the depiction of the people remarkable in the way that their very existence was so frivolous. From Botox parties, to all night drinking…

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to a conga line which never ends, I was struck as I always am by the ridiculousness of the masses.

 

My favorite scenes, my favorite lines, came from the character Sister Maria. A representation of Sister Theresa, at 104 years of age, she is asked why she won’t let them interview her in a book.

“I took a vow of poverty. And you don’t talk about poverty. You live it,” she says very quietly through broken and greying teeth.

And later, when Jeb is standing on a balcony watching migrating flamingos who are resting there, she turns to ask him, “Do you know why I only eat roots?”

“No,” he replies.

“Because roots are important.”

But it seems to me that Jeb has shallow roots, or none at all. He is lost and conflicted through much of the film, until finally he accepts what he cannot change and says, “What lies beyond is not my concern. Therefore, let the novel begin.”

A final point: the music from the film was as good as the cinematography for me. Just as the film’s scenes moved from the sacred to the profane, the music went from a disco beat to an angelic choir.

Music from the film:

My Heart’s in the Highlands (Arvo Pärt) – Else Torp and Christopher Bowers-Broadbent 
Time, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
The Beatitudes (Vladimir Martynov) – The Kronos Quartet 
Dies irae from Requiem for My Friend (Zbigniew Preisner) 
The Lamb (John Tavener) – The Temple Church Choir 
Symphony in C Major: II. Adagio (Georges Bizet) – The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra 
River Flows, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Symphony no. 3: III. Lento (Henryk Górecki) – The London Symphony Orchestra w/ Dawn Upshaw 
Beata viscera (Magister Perotinus) – Vox Clamantis
Far l’amore (Club Mix) – Bob Sinclar and Raffaella Carrà 
More Than Scarlet – Decoder Ring 
Take My Breath Away – Gui Boratto 
Brain Waves, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Everything Trying – Damien Jurado 
Parade – Tape 
Color My World, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Forever – Antonello Venditti 
Surge of Excitement, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Water from the Same Source – Rachel’s 
Settembre non comincia, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Ti ruberò – Monica Cetti 
Trumeau, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Que no se acabe el mambo – La Banda Gorda 
We No Speak Americano – Studio Allstars 
Discoteca – Exchpoptrue 
Mueve la colita (2012 Remix) – El Gato DJ 
Ramona, from the score by Lele Marchitelli

La Grande Bellezza won Best Foreign Language Film of the Year from the Academy Awards in 2014, and Best Foreign Language Film from the Golden Globes in 2014, among many other nominations and awards from countries worldwide. I thank Scott of seraillon for bringing it to my attention.

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26 thoughts on “The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)”

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this film, Bellezza. It blew me away when I saw it at the cinema, just the sheer exuberance of it all – it’s a feast for the senses. I’m with you on the music too, just as powerful as the visual images.

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    1. I can only imagine how powerful the effect would be on a full screen, in a theater. As it is, even with a few lines cut from the subtitle once in awhile on my television, I cannot stop thinking of it. The sights, the sounds, the thoughts of Jep as he observes those around him are almost indelible on my mind.

      Oh, I how I love Italy – and everything that comes from there.

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    1. Thanks, Edgar; who knew?

      Once, when I was a little girl I asked my mother on Mother’s Day why there wasn’t Children’s Day.

      “Because,” she replied, “every day is children’s day.”

      Which is rather how I feel about Women’s Day.

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  2. This sounds fascinating. I dont know if I’ve heard about this here – I’ll have to check out if it’s got a different title or even been released in Aus.Thanks for such a engaging review…

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      1. If I could find it in my deplorable library, I was sure you could find it where you live. It has scenes and imagery I’ll not soon forget, and really, I’d love to buy the soundtrack. Hope you enjoy it, too!

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  3. A gorgeous film. At first I thought it might be to much of an homage to La Dolce Vita but it soon engaged me and dispelled that fear. Like you I was taken with Sister Theresa, her tiny body sleeping on the floor and her little legs dangling from her too big chair. I think it has the special quality of some of the earlier Fellinis.

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    1. I do not know of films enough to be able to discuss them in any depth, but now I’d like to see (the famous) La Dolce Vita.

      I’m not surprised that we book were taken with Sister Theresa…she was one of my favorites.

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  4. Glad you liked this, Bellezza. I’m particularly grateful for your having posted the music playlist, since that’s one of the great strengths of this sumptuous film.

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    1. It’s so wonderful when one medium leads to another. I have found myself taking note of musicians while reading lately; in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch I began listening to Arvo Part; in Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage I began (again) to listen to Franz Liszt, and now with this film I have begun listening to John Tavener. Probably you already know of The Lamb, but it is so piercingly gorgeous especially during this season of Lent.

      This is a film I could happily purchase and watch over and over. The images, the ideas, the music, all of it is mesmerizing. Thank you for telling me of it. I often have my nose too deeply buried in a book.

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      1. I agree – it is a mesmerizing film. Part of that for me was watching Sorrentino frequently allude to other Italian films – La Dolce Vita, Roma, La Notte and many others – a real homage.

        I love that Tavener piece. For fun, you might also want to check out on YouTube the original Raffaella Carrà song (Far l’Amore) used by Bob Sinclair. The video is a hoot.

        I learned recently that Sorrentino has also written a novel, Everybody’s Right, translated in English and published by Europa Books. It may be a while before I get to it, but I’m curious to read it.

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  5. Completely unrelated to this post … I wish I had known that you wanted to read Sputnik Sweetheart! Have you read Hard-Boiled Wonderland? Planning on Colorless Tsukuru in June, but it looks like you have read that one. Let me know which you have not read and we can work something out!

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  6. You’ve posted a beautiful review that the film deserves, Bellezza. I admit I’ve only seen it once in the theatre; I need to watch it again to reap the most enjoyment from it. You have done a wonderful job in capturing its essence. Bravo! As for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner: IDA, you must see it. Visually it may be drastically different from The Great Beauty, but the spiritual pursuit is even deeper and more rewarding I feel. Hope you’ll have a chance to see it.

    BTW, thanks for your comment on my blog. I’ve shared a little of my Proust reading in my reply. 😉

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    1. Well, I would never have thought that my review would termed a beautiful one in your eyes, Arti. But, I will accept that compliment, and hope to find IDA. You, my friend, are the film expert!

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