What makes for sophistication in film? Absence perhaps. Arthouse restraint. A plot that ruminates rather than rollercoasts. Inscrutable motives, gnomic silences, Camusian protagonists, disturbing yet unpalatable truths; a directionless, meaningless universe. Tilda Swinton or Kristin Scott Thomas at the very least. La Grande Bellezza has many of the sophisticate signifiers, yet the decadent world of Jep Gambarella is unlike that of modern Anglophone cinema’s nihilists – Baumbach’s Greenberg, Wes Anderson’s patriarchs or Jim Jarmusch's anti-heroes – in that it wields an aesthetic heft and an emotional punch.
The Great Beauty is just that: full of Titian colour, Lampedusan characters and the sublime. The editing is a joy: full of sweeping pans, reveals and daring cuts from figure to figure as we peer through the latest window dressing of decadence onto a timeless Rome: the cocaine, the throbbing house and the eternal Colosseum looking on at the transient frivolity.
As the writer-journalist-socialite Gambarella struggles with a very gentlemanly breed of existential despair, the film allows itself to be at odds with its own conceit. Life may well be ‘solo un truco’ (just a trick) – but the friendships and frailties of counts, pimps, scholars, dancers and cardinals give substance to the film’s undeniable style.
The Great Beauty is a breathtaking achievement with a stunning central performance by Toni Servillo (Il Divo) that alternates between debonair detachment and acute sadness. Critics are always tempted to ascribe precision and insight to films that show nothing other than emptiness, and perhaps La Grande Bellezza is that kind of film; however, it fulfils the creed of its title by finding reason, sentimentality and acceptance in life’s mysteries and disappointments.