Italy has once again earned its place on the cinematic map with a recent win for Best Foreign Film. Without having even seen “La Grande Bellezza,” I was just happy to hear that Italy had finally contributed something to the cinematic stratosphere that didn’t involve the usual tired storylines of sordid love affairs coupled with cheesy, heart-shaped graphics on billboards. It’s been a while since Italian cinema has been worthy of the honor.
Last night, one of the public television channels aired “La Grande Bellezza” so all of Italy could come to know the film that brought home the Oscar this year. I couldn’t wait to see it, especially since my new adventures in motherhood have prohibited me from sitting through any type of programming for longer than twenty minutes. Consequently, it’s been more than a year since I’ve had the pleasure of setting foot in a cinema – and for someone who considers herself a film enthusiast, that’s quite a punishment. So I got giddy when I saw the 9:30pm time slot on my DVR: just in time to send Luca off to dreamland and have a little serious movie time.
Maybe I’m just in dire need of cinematic sustenance, or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve barely held an adult conversation that doesn’t involve bowel movement color and frequency in more than a year – but this film completely overtook me, as any great one should. It struck me almost immediately, like those certain people you meet and instantly click with. This film and I understood each other on many levels.
Judging from the dismal reviews I had come across on the internet and radio here in Italy, I was prepared to be bored out of my mind. But when I heard it described as “Felliniesque,” that turned me on – I’ve appreciated the genre since my “Post-War Italian Cinema” course in college where we dissected the masterpieces of the likes of De Sica, Pasolini, and of course, Fellini.
Incidentally, to be referenced as “Felliniesque” is a double-edged sword: it can prove as off-putting to non-enthusiasts and sets too high of a standard for cult followers. From the first scene though, it’s clear “La Grande Bellezza” is an homage to the Fellini era. There are certainly those moments of pure randomness and chaos characteristic of the style, typically involving affluent characters who wander their world in a desperate insanity, searching to fill a void in their lives they can’t explain. Jovial nightlife scenes and lavish extravagance often mask their deep angst and emotional despair. But this film wins by achieving a contemporary twist and sociological depth which manifests its own identity in the persona of Jep, played by the phenomenal Toni Servillo.
Many Italians apparently had a hard time following the plot or finding any meaning in it at all (many Italians also love any excuse to crap all over their own country, but that’s another story). To anyone looking for a clear answer as to what this film is about, my most obvious personal observation would be: it’s the story of a man who has spent the past forty years making Rome his playground. He’s placed all of his energy and priorities on becoming part of the upper echelon of society, only to arrive at his sixty-fifth birthday forced to come to terms with the fact he’s wasted much of his life in a superficial, hypocritical circle of high-society people and their frivolous version of a city he once hoped to dominate.
Americans can’t resist a good film with suave Italian accents and sweeping views of Rome; that might be what sealed the deal with the Academy. But I would also hope they appreciated the irony and depth in all that exquisite beauty. That immaculate Roman scenery, in my opinion, was meant to directly reflect the outwardly perfect, impeccable appearance the Roman upper-class struggles to project. In truth, what lies beneath is another story, both in the people and their city. The protagonist spends a lot of time walking through this scenery, and I understood that to be a completely intentional way of juxtaposing the striking exterior beauty of the city with the ugly interior reality of its society’s aristocrats.
I also don’t find it a coincidence that the director chose not to depict the grungy state of the city itself: the Rome of today – not the tourist center, but the one real people live and work in every day – is littered with trash-filled streets, poop on the sidewalks, and triple-parked cars. Only those who live in or are intimate with Rome could recognize this inherent irony. That’s why I really loved this film: Sorrentino managed to present it in a way that it would be embraced instantly for the stereotypically intense beauty of Rome, while at the same time producing one of the greatest critiques of this city today, from the point of view of those who live it.
It was a perfect portrait of what it means to be a true Roman, who struggles with both the love and admiration for his city, as well as the frustration and utter disgust for the life it can enable. The excess and exaggeration of the Dolce Vita era is alive and well even today in the Italian capital – and its participants are just as out of touch with the real world as ever. The clean and exaggeratedly pristine scenography couples with the ideal many in that particular social circle try to portray, only to fall short and lose touch with reality altogether.
No doubt though, the reason I enjoyed this film so much is not only because I live in Rome, but because in my years working in this great city, I’ve been exposed to people similar to the characters in this film. So I can appreciate this film’s point of view and its sophisticated depiction of the soul of a complicated city and its varied inhabitants.
By all means, watch this film for its stunning imagery – just remember to look deeper to reveal the Rome buried beneath all the beauty. And as far as viewing this or any “Felliniesque” film goes, remember: Give it a chance. Don’t try to follow or understand a direct plot line. Approach it with a light heart and a keen sense of irony. And most of all, sit back and enjoy the spectacle.