Interestingly enough, for all the foreign movies we see, almost none are Italian. I really don't know who Paolo Sorrentino, the writer and director of La Grande Bellezza, is, nor do I recognize Toni Servillo who stars a Jep, the lead character. I couldn't pick any of the other actors out of a lineup, though they all seemed somehow familiar, like maybe I'd seen them in movies from 20 or 30 years ago.
This movie also feels like a cultural successor to all those excessive '60s/'70s Italian flicks: As in, what happened to all those hedonistic people decades later?
Well, it's not pretty. Jep is a man who, at 65 (Servillo is actually 53 but he pulls it off) realizes that his life has been a meaningless series of parties, and so sets off to find "the great beauty". Well, sorta. It's more a vague hope expressed at one point, that he'd hoped to see such a thing.
At this point, I should note that his apartment overlooks the Coliseum. And at one point, he takes his lover, Ramona (the gorgeous and touching Sabrini Ferilli), on a nighttime tour of all the great museums of Rome.
There's an intro to the movie with a bunch of tourists at the Fontana dell'Acqua Paola, with an Asian tourist looking out from Janiculum Hill, who takes a picture and breathes a sigh of what looks like perfect bliss, then immediately drops dead.
It's something of a sickness of the soul, really, to be unable to see all the beauty around one, I guess we could say the movie is telling us. And if this were a French movie, it'd probably be unwatchable. All dark ennui and nihilism.
But since it's Italian, it doesn't take itself too seriously. You end up feeling for Jep. He's trying. And his relationship with Ramona is a tender and humanizing thing. In the journey, he's skewering modern art and society, religion and secularism, vanity and humility, and pretty much everyone in his circle.
There's a Mother Teresa figure called "The Saint" (played so convincingly by Giusi Merli you'd think she actually was 100-plus years old) who sleeps on the floor and eats, I don't know, uncooked barley and is basically the complete opposite of Jep and his hedonistic friends.
And while there's considerable farce surrounding her, and she can seem like a character actually comical in her stoicism, the movie's climactic moment suggests that she has gained something from her spiritual life and she can share that with Jep.
Now, here's the thing about this movie: At 2 hours and 20 minutes, with no single compelling narrative, this could've been a trauma to sit through. Even with many compelling vignettes, it could've been merely amusing (and even then, at 2:20, it would've worn out its welcome long before the credits rolled).
But this really worked for both The Boy and I, and I doubt we got the same things out of it. There is such tremendous beauty here, and at the same time so many questions raised, it's almost optimistic at the bottom of it all.
I don't know if I can give a good sense of it. It's just very Italian.