Criterion Collection DVD Review: The Great Beauty (2013)

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Giving us a jet-setting tourist’s eye look at Rome as filtered through the alternately sardonic, sensual, shocking and sublime point-of-view of its Naples born cinematic magician (filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino), The Great Beauty is as Avant-garde as it is experiential.

Packing its majestically detailed frames with so much sensory overload it’s as though an entire year’s worth of Italian Vogue back-issues had suddenly come to life, Sorrentino’s work falls back on his country’s greatest film innovators to take us on a journey of the past and present with the faintest trace of hope for what the future might have in store.

So filled with bizarre people and places that one can’t help but describe it as Felliniesque, Beauty employs a far freer cinematographic style that wanders in and out of one scene to the next with an Antonioni-like constantly moving camera. As such, The Great Beauty wears all of its artistic influences and aspirations proudly from the first frame to the last.

Beginning with a quote from Celine that champions the importance of travel and imagination before launching us headfirst into a population of self-important movers and shakers that would rather philosophize about than leave their precious Rome –  the film takes a frequently ironic, contradictory view of any statements it purports to make.

Spiritually akin to Oscar Wilde given Wilde's ability to argue one side of an argument and then the other without tipping his hat that he cares that much either way, we’re quickly introduced to actor Toni Servillo’s Wildesque master partier Jep Gambardella.

Having published a novel many decades earlier, Jep has since flown by on his fame, preferring meaningless interview pieces in favor of tackling another novel since it would hamper the busy social schedule that takes the most precedence in his life.

As the film begins, we find Jep celebrating his 65th birthday but his carefree demeanor changes shortly thereafter when Jep is visited by a stranger who brings with him news about a woman he’d loved in the past which sends Jep on an existential adventure.

Making him take a sudden inventory of his life, Jep begins questioning not only the way he’s choosing to conga his way through life (in dances that never go anywhere) but also the similarly self-absorbed people with whom he spends his time.

Lacking a solid, linear narrative thread as well as any traditional plot points typical in late coming-of-age, spiritual reckoning movies, while those who depend on films which utilize a rigid beginning, middle and end (as well as a strong emotional payoff) should look elsewhere, those who enjoy taking a cinematic risk will find Great Beauty worthwhile.

Bloated in its 142 minute running time because it doesn’t offer a concrete point-of-view, The Great Beauty seems doubly long given the seemingly endless parade of embarrassing female artistic displays from head butting bricks to knife-throwing or the paint splattered cries of an anguished child that fill the screen.

While our lead character denies accusations of misogyny by citing misanthropy instead, ultimately it proves hard to watch any way you slice it as if I was from Rome, this is hardly a work I’d want representing my hometown regardless of gender.

A good 20 to 30 minutes too long despite its beauty, all of the unlikable aspects start to weigh on our goodwill as we move from Botox salons to strip clubs and beyond.

Despite a solid first act and an opening sequence that’s so staggeringly gorgeous that it’s hardly surprising when an onscreen tourist drops dead – although we’re initially pulled into the pulsating rhythm of an outdoor dance, what is surprising is how out-of-breath and overwhelmed by all the excess we are by the midway point that we begin to relate to that unknown, jet-lagged tourist.

Nonetheless in celebrating its undisputed majesty, The Criterion Collection serves up a predictably dazzling transfer of the Best Foreign Film Oscar winner that nearly fooled me into thinking the DVD I’d been sent was a Blu-ray in disguise.

In the end, ultimately the success of The Great Beauty depends on just what you’re hoping to get out of it and (just like any tourist), your ability to live in the moment of each scene without the pesky need to try and put them together in any sort of traditional way.

Like a party where everyone takes turns playing DJ, the rhythm of Beauty keeps changing and if you’re happy to follow Jep in a conga line with no end or beginning (as brilliant essayist Phillip Lopate analyzes in his terrific piece included in the collectible booklet), you should be just fine letting Sorrentino be your Roman guide.

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