Review: La Grande Bellezza (2013)

Abstract: A Quick Review of La Grande Bellezza.
In a nutshell: I didn’t like it.

Let it be known that I am a crier at movies.  I cried at Tomorrowland, I cried at Men in Black III, I can’t help it, I just do. Which is what I expected to do at La Grande Bellezza, Sorrentino’s 2013 award winning film about Jep Gambardella’s second midlife crisis. Hell, I went to that movie wanting to cry.  A solid serving of sentimentality is good soup for the soul.

La Grande Bellezza is a beautiful movie full of splendidly rendered shots of Rome. My favorite shots were at the beginning—before my disillusionment set in—where the camera is set at knee level as it pans around fountains and through gardens, giving the sense of being a tyke toddling through the ancient city with all that youthful wonder to contrast with the sublime age of things.

But none of it made me cry and I couldn’t figure out why.

Sure, the film lacked any sort of plot or narrative arch… but I am no stranger to that. Tony Servillo plays the thoroughly charismatic leading role of Jep Gambardella, the aging Italian flâneur, respected writer, seemingly infinitely wealthy, high class, superbly dapper, Italian socialite who throws nightly Gatsby-esque roof parties at his apartment overlooking the coliseum. Jep can’t seem to work out his ennui, though he gets absolutely everything he wants whenever he wants it.

But again, I’m no stranger to hyper-wealthy tales of boredom.  There are few bigger fans out there of F. Scott Fitzgeraldusually I eat this stuff up.

Where this film fails is its incredibly boring message.  The message is first delivered at the end of the film’s best bit of dialogue, in which Jep brutally and publicly  excoriates his boastful friend Stefania:

Jep: “Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little… Don’t you agree?”

A good life lesson from Jep.  Not anything new, but it’s about the wisest thing anyone says the entire movie.  Of course, the irony here is that Jep acts superior to absolutely everyone. Any sympathy we have for him is constantly undercut by what a colossal (coliseum) asshole he is, even if he looks good doing it.  But skip with me to the end of the movie, in which Jep delivers a pseudo-poetic speech on the brink of finally writing the next great Italian novel.

This is how it always ends.
With death.
But first there was life.
Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah.
It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise.
Silence and sentiment.
Emotion and fear.
The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty.
[Gli sparuti, incostanti sprazzi di bellezza]
And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity.
All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world.
Beyond there is what lies beyond.
I don’t deal with what lies beyond.
Let this novel begin.

I was supposed to cry here!  Insert profound Italian wisdom, something about love, and maybe quote Dante, quote Petrarch, quote Calvino! Instead, I cringed.  As an experiment, try paraphrasing this dialogue which, outwardly, is meant to invoke some sort of deep wisdom at the climax of the film.

Lines 1-3: (circular defining of the obvious) Life ends with death, but there was life.
Lines 4-5: (Meaningless sounds) “Blah blah blah” and “chitter chatter.”
Lines 5-6: A series of seemingly deep sounding dialectical antipodes “emotion & fear, silence & sentiment.”
Lines 7-9: Orgasm metaphor juxtaposed with limp generalization about humanity.
Lines 10: (tautological admission of total ignorance) ..After death there is the beyond.  The beyond is unknowable.

When you paraphrase this dialogue, or rather, monologue-attempting-to-sound-deep, it is exposed for what it is: a series of vapid truisms, empty tautologies; and this this is what we’ve waited two hours and fifteen minutes for, this crap is the resolution that allows Jep to move beyond his second midlife crisis and begin work on his next masterpiece novel.  The message of the entire film can be summed up in a word:

Blah. blah. blah. blah. blah.

Apparently, the main lesson of this film is that if I live in Rome, I can be a highly respect, fine Italian tailored suit wearing, gentleman playboy, well into my late sixties and I’ll even get to have dinner with Mother Theresa.

Pursue life—like Jep—for its sprazzi di bellezza, its flashes of beauty, which, in this film, unquestionably means orgasms.  Extend that translation of sprezzi di bellezza to the title, and the film is revealed for what it is: a tedious, 160 minute, self-masturbatory explosion. La Grande Bellezza.  The only sprezzatura in this film is how effortlessly it seems to have any sort of meaning beyond that.  Jep Gambardella is the Italian cinema version of Norman Mailer, ever pursuing his hypermasculine pseudo-philosophy of orgasm.  Jep Gambardella is Jay Gatsby if Jay Gatsby hadn’t died, and instead moved to Italy, wrote the next great Italian novel (he’d have called it Il Grande Gatsby) and then lived out the rest of his life still pining, as Jep does, for his first love.

Unfortunately, this message appeals to a lot of people.

But let’s end on a positive note.  For my part, I laughed pretty hard at my favorite line in the movie, Jep’s quip about the conga lines at his parties.

I nostri trenini sono i più bellie di tutti. E sai perche? Perche non vanno da nessuna parte.
Our dance trains are the best of all. Do you know why?  Because they don’t have anywhere to go!

The line is a microcosm for the movie: it’s a film with a lot sensational, beautiful imagery that has absolutely no where to go, no plot, no message, no resolution.  Its dialogue is as empty as its imagery is magical. And of course the scene with the CGI giraffe was delightful.

La Grande Bellezza is a cringe-worthy film that saves itself from the pretension of having any sort of message whatsoever by dressing that message up in the finest garb possible: Roma!


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