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La Grande Belleza (The Great Beauty)

Calling “La Grande Belleza” a remake of Federico Fellini’s classic “La Dolce Vita,” may be going too far.  But saying Paolo Sorrentino’s new film quotes the old one, or to simply point out how similar they are, doesn’t go nearly far enough.  They are almost the same film, separated by about 50 years.  Apparently, not much in Rome has changed in half a century.

Rome is one of a few cities, that, when it appears in film, operates more like a character than a setting. Things happen there that wouldn’t happen anywhere else, and the only explanation necessary is, “It’s Rome.”  Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film takes a look a the Eternal City that is at times affectionate, disgusted, bored, fascinated, amazed, and disappointed. To perfectly capture the unique feel of the film, I suggest a drinking game. Every time you see a nun (or a group of nuns,) take a drink.

And while it’s basically impossible to talk about this film without mentioning that “La Dolce Vita,” it’s equally impossible to talk about Paolo Sorrentino without talking about Italian cinema in general. It’s been dormant for a number of years, but nobody makes films like the Italians do, and if you’re not ready for their brand of exuberance mixed with melancholy cut through with blatant symbolism and over-the-top imagery, you might be put off by it.  My recommendation: go with it.  Not everyone has to make art films the way the Japanese do (quiet, restrained, full of long, unbroken shots of sunlight on furniture.) Thank God for the Italians.

Sorrentino takes a look at the Eternal City through the eyes of Jep, one-time king of the socialites. He might still be king, but he’s thinking seriously about abdicating the throne. He once wrote a book that won him a prestigious, or possibly pretentious, award. Since then, he’s been a cultural columnist. He’s maybe a step on the social ladder above Marcelo Mastroianni in “La Dolce Vita,” who was a gossip columnist, but both approach the glitterati with the same attitude. He floats through it all, the parties, the orgies, the Botox religious ceremonies, participating, but then stepping out of it, part of it, and apart from it, seduced by it, disgusted by it. I suspect that I am not supposed to like him as much as I do. Other critics find him jaded, joyless, cynical. I find him… grounded. He knows the difference between art and nonsense, even when none around him seem to. He interviews a preposterous artist (she paints the Soviet flag into her pubic hair and then head butts stone walls) and reduces her to tears with the simplest of questions. He delicately, but thoroughly, deconstructs the personal narrative of a close friend who thinks she’s better everyone else. And then he invites her down off her high horse, into the mud with him and everyone else. We need each other. What we don’t need is pretension, deception, and falseness. Jep understands that great art is sometimes decadent, but sheer decadence is nothing like art.

The people Jep hangs around with, the people he loves, are mostly frauds. Some of them have developed better, more complicated ways to cope with their emptiness and desperation than others. Almost all of them are performing in one way or another, for each other, for posterity, for themselves. The director treats these characters with he same balance of disgust and affection that Jep has for them, and I’d guess that’s the way he feels about Rome as a whole.

I guess what’s most impressive about “Belleza” is that it can come so close to sacred territory — La Dolce Vita was surely one of the best films to come out of Europe in the ’60s — without ever feeling irritating or repetitive.  I never felt like, “this is fine, but if I wanted to watch a film about Roman decadence with a bored and cynical protagonist in the middle, I’d just go watch “La Dolce Vita.”  (The way I felt after watching Super 8, JJ Abrams, homage to E.T.) Like “La Dolce Vita,” this film is really just a series of related vignettes, more interested in reflection and examination than in telling a story. “La Grande Belleza” lacks the formal structure of Fellini’s film, and doesn’t have anything coming close to the grand bookends of that film (heaven at the beginning, hell at the end,) but maybe that’s just as well. Fellini was known for his bold flourishes, and a lot of other directors are less well known for trying to do the same thing, and failing. Maybe that’s why this film never feels like a pale imitation of that other one; Sorrentino has a keen sense of what to imitate, and what to stay away from.

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