The Great Beauty

Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella in The Great Beauty


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 April


Romulus founds Rome, 753BC

On this day in 753BC, one of the great capitals of world civilisation was founded, or so the story goes. Rome, city of the Caesars, was founded by Romulus, who along with Remus was one of the twin sons of Rhea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa (present day Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope has his summer residence). The father of the twins was either Mars, the god of war, or possibly Hercules, the demi-god son of Zeus. Either way, Rhea Silvia’s sons become problematical for her once Numitor’s brother Amulius seizes power from Numitor, and Romulus and Remus end up abandoned on the banks of the River Tiber, where they are famously suckled by a wolf, until a shepherd finds them and rears them. According to this worldview, nobility passing along bloodlines, so the brothers are natural leaders and, once they discover the truth of their origin, they kill the man who abandoned them and set about founding a city of their own. The twins quarrel over the precise location of this new city and, heads being hot, Remus ends up dead. Romulus names the city after himself. This foundational myth, of Romulus and Remus, has always had to co-exist with another – that the city was founded by descendants of Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan war. Recent archaeological evidence suggests the city may be older than either story implies.




The Great Beauty (2013, dir: Paolo Sorrentino)

La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s 1960 film which The Great Beauty bookends, starts with the sight of a giant statue of Jesus being airlifted out of Rome. Message: godlessness. The Great Beauty starts with the firing of a cannon. Message: boom. Director Paolo Sorrentino then drops us into a rooftop party, the music pounding, the beautiful women dancing, buff guys strutting, people of all ages, heights, colours and degrees of comeliness. And all dressed fabulously, all glamorous, all moisturised. It’s a brilliantly co-ordinated display of moneyed, honeyed Roman excess set to a pumping Euro-house beat. And in the middle of it all, grinning like a man who has it all, is Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella. This is Gambardella’s 65th birthday party and this is his night. He’s still virile enough to enjoy life, with enough money to paper over any cracks that time has caused. Smug.
The Great Beauty doesn’t make specific reference to La Dolce Vita, but in Fellini’s earlier film we have followed Marcello Mastroianni as a novelist who has become a celebrity journalist and lost his soul in the process. In The Great Beauty, Gambardella, we are told, is a novelist who has spent a lifetime as a journalist. He has never written a second book to build on the promise of the first. And over the two hours or so of Sorrentino’s film, we see why – the women, the soirees, the guiltless sex, the decadent art, the exquisite clothes and the endless gossip. There are even Botox evenings, when the wealthy line up to have evidence of their years injected away. I’ve been led astray by all this, he says in so many words to his cleaner, pretty much the only person Jep is honest with. And then suddenly he is at the funeral of a young man who really shouldn’t have died young. He’s helping carry his casket, in fact, when the emotional logjam breaks and he realises… actually we’re not quite sure what he realises. Perhaps that he’s been a fool. Perhaps that he just has enough time and energy left to work on something more meaningful than entertainment. In flashback we see young Jep – he looks remarkably like Mastroianni – and a lost love. Is she the Great Beauty of the title. Is Rome? Or is la grande bellezza like la dolce vita, a lifestyle so attractive that it has turned the heads of even the clergy?
Like the Devil giving Christ the “all this could be yours” tour while tempting him in the desert, Sorrentino doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing us the garden of earthly delights. This really is one of the most sumptuous films ever made, with every shot a display of deliberate cinematic excess. Why move when you can glide? Why track when you can whoosh into the air first? Even the Steadicam shots are balletic. The music, too, is gorgeous, a mix of the sacred (Tavener, Pärt, David Lang) and the profane (Bob Sinclar and Raffaella Carrà’s pumping Far l’Amore), and it does sonically what Servillo and Sorrentino are offering us on the screen – the sight a doomed man glimpsing redemption, as they did in One Man Up, The Consequences of Love and even to a certain extent in Il Divo. But never like this. If you haven’t seen it, prepare to be amazed.



Why Watch?


  • Winner of the 2014 Oscar for best foreign language movie
  • The latest fruit of director Sorrentino and actor Servillo’s collaboration
  • Luca Bigazzi’s breathtaking cinematography
  • The soundtrack – in particular David Lang’s choral piece I Lie


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Great Beauty aka La Grande Bellezza – at Amazon





13 January 2014-01-13

Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty

Out in the UK This Week



The Great Beauty (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

You don’t need to have seen Fellini’s La Dolce Vita to appreciate The Great Beauty, but it might make for a more rewarding experience if you have. The 1963 film told the story of a writer who has been seduced away from his noble calling to become a cynical journalist specialising in celebrity tittle-tattle. Paulo Sorrentino’s 2013 film imagines him at the end of his career, still a journalist, even more world weary, after decades of success, a name all over Rome, with a gnawing absence where his oeuvre  – or at least his second novel – should be. It’s a beautiful film, full of swooping camerawork, full of the sort of faces that would have tickled Fellini – as if chosen to demonstrate the effect of one deadly sin or another. Scene after scene is a standout. The rooftop party sequence alone, right at the beginning of the film, is one of the most exciting, ridiculous and yet believable things I’ve ever seen, a vision of excess danced out by wealthy Romans short and tall, young and old, ugly and beautiful, all out to have the very best of good times. In a succession of suits tailored to emphasise his long, languid limbs Toni Servillo, Sorrentino’s go-to actor, plays Jep Gambardella, the modern equivalent to Fellini’s Marcello Mastroianni. It’s a performance of marble impassivity and arch hauteur that perfectly matches what Sorrentino is doing with his camera, his luxurious pacing, his constant suggestion of super-abundance. Does the film itself become a bit too much? Sadly, it does. As if just a bit too in thrall to its subject, it tickles here and there where it should punch. This is sniping though, because the minute this film of two hours and 20 minutes finished I wished it hadn’t. The next day I watched it again.

The Great Beauty – at Amazon



Piercing Brightness (Soda, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Oh dear, pigeons. The debut film by longtime artist and debut director Shezad Dawood has all the hallmarks of a student production – what it is with pigeons and students I don’t know – but then within about five minutes I’d completely dropped my objections and surrendered to Dawood’s pretty damn fantastic alien movie that sets out to make the world we inhabit look as alien to us as it must do to them – the aliens, I mean. Set in Preston, Lancashire, made for two bags of chips, it’s a lovely piece of trippy North of England film-making recalling Skeletons in its offbeat vibe, The Man Who Fell to Earth in its otherworldly feel. The plot reveals itself slowly, so I won’t over-explain, except to say that it’s about aliens who come to Earth to find the aliens who were dumped here years before. What has become of them? Have they gone native? That’s the crux of this lo-budget work of ingenuity made with real cinematic skill. The soundtrack is good too – subsonics, aural washes, whooshes, languid shrieks, really evocative. I spotted a snatch of Gong in there (space-rock trainspotter that I am), though Acid Mothers Temple seem involved too, in the music and, I suspect, at an inspirational level. A great addition to the lo-fi sci-fi genre, file it next to The Arrival of Wang and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.

Piercing Brightness – at Amazon



Promised Land (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The plot to Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero – oil man arrives at Scottish island intending rape of land, pillage of culture, and is enchanted – has been lifted for this Gus Van Sant film about frackers. Which is more nuanced about frackers than coming out and saying “they’re just plain bad”. Though these guys are bad. Even when played by the super-charming Matt Damon and Frances McDormand at their very most winsome, as the ever-so-friendly advance guard encouraging a rural community to sign away the fracking rights to the evil megacorp the duo represent. Looking dangerously like the sort of TV movie that comes with a message that smalltown values are best, Promised Land offers more than that, mainly by lining us on the same side as the bad guys (damn their charm) and by throwing a plot curve ball just when we think we know which way things are going. If it shortchanges McDormand slightly – her character is by far the most interesting yet underwritten one in the film – that’s indicative of the film’s only real weakness. It leans a little hard on the stereotypes. But then didn’t Local Hero? Just a bit?

Promised Land – at Amazon



Riddick (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Much anticipated, especially by those who sat through The Chronicles of Riddick, actor/producer Vin Diesel and director David Twohy’s attempt to refind the formula they mislaid after making Pitch Black is a lot of skanky, stubbly, guns’n’grunts fun. For those who don’t understand what I’m talking about, Pitch Black was a neat, tough sci-fi actioner starring Diesel as a pissed-off criminal with acute nightsight who came into his own when the twin suns started set on the alien world he and his guards were on and the night creatures started emerging. The Chronicles of Riddick was something similar, plus 17 tabs of acid, one pair of electrodes to the testicles, all of Diesel’s runaway ego and every bit of input from every member of every Riddick chatroom ever. It was epic cack. Even with Judi Dench in it. For the reboot, some 13 years after the original, Twohy and Diesel are back, the neat, tough plot is back and, even though producer Diesel has not risked much of his own money on it (nor anyone else’s judging by the discount SFX), so is some of the grit that made Pitch Black worth a look. Plot: a bunch of mercenaries are out to claim a bounty by recapturing the convict Riddick, a man who eats raw meat, a man who has tamed a crazy wild creature of the benighted planet he is stuck on. In fact there are two sets of mercenaries out to get him. Surely to god that’s enough? Of course it isn’t. Gruntwise, we have the inhospitable planet, the stubbly scowling mercenaries, post-apocalyptic grunge, hideous weaponry and creatures that are all teeth and leathery bits. Sole woman is played by Katee Sackhoff, who compensates by having even bigger balls metaphorically than the other guys, who all stand perpetually like goalkeepers. So yes, someone’s idea of a display of undiluted testosterone, mixed with radioactive human growth hormone. Riddick, it turns out, is short for ridiculous.

Riddick – at Amazon



You’re Next (Kaleidoscope, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Cult horror guy Adam Wingard turns up on those compilation ABCs of Death and V/H/S movies and seems always on the verge of being the next Eli Roth or someone. So how does he handle a “guys out in the woods” horror story? Competently, and with a few good twists is the answer, You’re Next being the story of a rich family meeting up at their isolated holiday home, whereupon they are beset by murderous men in animal masks and are killed one by one. The End. Yes, that is the plot, but Wingard has some tasty reveals before the end credits roll. And the family in question appears to have made its money by selling arms, so we’re primed for more unpleasant reveals, plus some even more unpleasant payback. All you have to do is guess who “final girl” is going to be. Don’t expect a great script, or for it to add up in terms of human psychology. But I put that down to Wingard teasing the genre’s weaknesses, generous soul that I am.

You’re Next – at Amazon



In Real Life (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

Once upon a time the internet was going to be the great democratising saviour of humanity. Now the prevailing wisdom seems to heading in the other direction. Pursuing that line of thought, brilliant documentarian Beeban Kidron’s alarming and alarmist film asks the big question – who exactly is in control of this internet thingy – as it interviews a series of what might loosely be called victims of the ravening technology. So we meet wee teenage lads who are familiar with bukkake, milfs and hentai. We meet the nice young girl who seems to have had sex with five guys just so they’d return her BlackBerry. We meet the teenage boy destined for Oxford University who instead seems to have fallen into a big hole marked “gaming”. They’re all interesting, intelligent, self-aware people (OK, not so much the girl, who seems a bit of a loser), and then we meet a whole slew of talking-head experts who are wheeled on to say in Latin and Greek what we’ve just been told in plain English – that this shit is all fucked up. Then Julian Assange turns up, to tell us how bad Google is/are. The grimly creepy Toby Joe Turner, aka YouTube phenomenon Tobuscus, turns up to offer some apercus spiked with  Butt-head chuckles and faux self-deprecation. And like a breath of fresh air sci-fi author Cory Doctorow offers the opinion that Facebook is psychotic and that it will die. Personally I can’t wait for it to go down and take Twitter with it, down to wherever Bebo and MySpace now reside. Snooping, bullying, porn, addiction, they’ve all been around since the year dot. What’s different now is how culturally unprepared we are for these new, internet forms of old distractions, though maybe this film, and others like it, are part of that mental realignment that ensures we can at least work out how to all get along together nicely.

In Real Life – at Amazon




Winter of Discontent (New Wave, cert 15, DVD)

A drama from Egypt, about the events that unfolded in Tahrir Square that led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and the Lotus Revolution. And given the way that they eventually did turn out – the army seem now to be back in charge, the elected president deposed – it is perhaps only fitting that Winter of Discontent is a little muted, mournful and strangely lacking in hurrahs. We see the events of early 2011 through the eyes of three people: a wiry activist who survives torture but is mentally scarred; the guy in charge of his torturing, a sleek functionary with a happy home life; and a pushy TV news anchor, whose personal ambition suddenly seems inappropriate when weighed against what’s going on outside. As I said, Winter of Discontent is a little eventless, though where it does deliver is in its suggestion of atmosphere, in its portrait of the bravery of those who sought to overthrow Mubarak, and in the way it shows the workings of power – not through direct coercion but by the acquiescence of everyone who gains if things stay the way they are.

Winter of Discontent – at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2014

The Films of Paolo Sorrentino

Sabrina Ferilli and Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty


Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) is a portrait of Rome through the eyes of a world weary writer. It’s being hailed as Sorrentino’s La Dolce Vita and stars Sorrentino’s Marcello Mastroianni, Toni Servillo. It’s close to a masterpiece in other words, making this a good time to take a look at the career of Italy’s best film-maker right now. Firmly in the tradition of the 1960s generation of Fellini and Visconti, yet clearly his own man too, Sorrentino’s films are intelligent, engaged, stylish, beautifully made and intriguing – they’ve got the lot, in short.




One Man Up (2001)

Sorrentino’s debut feature also saw him team up with Toni Servillo for the first time, with Servillo playing an ageing crooner whose nightly ritual of sing-snort-shag is brought to a premature end when he’s caught having sex with an underage girl. Meanwhile in a parallel world of storytelling and despair, we follow a footballer whose assured future of playing and then coaching is brought to a premature end by injury. Transmuting these earthbound stories is Sorrentino’s approach – dream sequences, ballerinas, fish. Though not entirely satisfying, it’s an unusual Fellini-tinged debut which marked out Sorrentino as a man to watch.

One Man Up – at Amazon (no English subtitles)


The Consequences of Love (2004)

We’re following Toni Servillo again, who plays a mysterious and very quiet man who lives alone in a Swiss hotel, where he seems to be slo-mo-ing towards death with an entirely uneventful life punctuated by a regular delivery of cash and a regular injection of heroin. Meanwhile, an employee at the hotel (played by Olivia Magnani, granddaughter of Anna) has half an eye for him, an eye that might offer him a chance of life again. Or will it? From the opening shot, Sorrentino’s cool – in look, mood, lighting, style – and very Italian version of film noir is entirely gripping. That we’ve no idea what’s going on until the film is nearly over only makes Sorrentino’s triumph all the more complete.

The Consequences of Love – at Amazon


The Family Friend (2005)

We’re deep in a Fellini-esque world of grotesque in Sorrentino’s hugely ironical and highly digressive film about the “family friend”, a money lender who uses his financial heft to secure access to young female flesh. And what female flesh Sorrentino has assembled – take one look at Laura Chiatti and whistle “mamma mia”. And counterpointed against this female beauty is the figure of Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo), the ageing old lecher with dyed hair, a Gollum-esque walk, a wheedling voice. As with The Consequences of Love, Sorrentino creates a world populated by people who seem to be stunned by life, an absurd overheated world of farce run through a refrigerator.

 The Family Friend – at Amazon


Il Divo (2008)

Sorrentino’s political drama about Giulio Andreotti must be the best drama about a politician that’s been made for decades, possibly ever. Toni Servillo plays the reptilian Andreotti, the first prime minister after democracy was restored in 1946 and a politician who kept high office until the 1990s, and influence until he died in May 2013. It is the story of a modern Italian politician as a direct scheming descendant of the Borgias, a goodfellas story that manages to spill the beans on the how and who of Italian corruption in high places but does it with an operatic style so heady with gorgeous technique that the technique threatens to overwhelm its subject. Except that its subject is so superabundantly crooked that he can take it.

Il Divo – at Amazon


This Must Be the Place (2011)

Sorrentino’s first English language film saw him getting Sean Penn to dress up like Robert Smith of the Cure to play an ageing goth rocker whose round of self-absorption and tax exile in Ireland (where he is attended to by Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono) is broken by his decision to become a Nazi hunter. If that sounds odd enough as a set-up, this very peculiar road movie (stopping off for a song by David Byrne, whose True Stories is clearly a model), delivered in flat monotone by Penn throughout, eventually builds towards a feverish climax in which the good guys appear to be being painted as cruel and vengeful and the old Nazi they’ve tracked down is used as a receptacle for the milk of human kindness. Revenge is a dish best served not at all seems to be Sorrentino’s idea, in a return to some of themes and procedures of The Consequences of Love.

This Must Be the Place – at Amazon


There is also a box set worth having  here. It contains One Man Up (with English subtitles, unlike the standalone dvd), The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend and Il Divo.


© Steve Morrissey 2013