We gathered a first round of reviews when The Great Beauty premiered at Cannes, and last week, we ran Simon Abrams‘s interview with Paolo Sorrentino. Now that it’s playing in New York and heading to Los Angeles on Friday before opening in umpteen cities on November 29, it’s time for a second look.
First, there’s the matter of Sorrentino’s standing. When The Great Beauty pulled into Toronto, Michael Sicinski felt obliged to recognize that “some members of the International Cinema Scope Cabal™” have, in the past (and the quite recent past at that), come down hard on the man and his work. Sicinski himself, though, has “remained somewhat agnostic” toward the Italian director, “who is undoubtedly talented but committed to working in a highly unfashionable mannerist mode.” Il Divo (2008) would be his best work: “There, the writer-director’s predilection for gargantuan, fascist space and disorienting, dipsy-doodle camerawork is pretty clearly his response to Berlusconi’s culture of all-consuming hideousness, an attempt to plunge into the ugliness and come out, if not on the other side, at least more undeniably at the center of Hell.” This Must Be the Place (2011) would be “Sorrentino’s most poetic film.” The Great Beauty, however, is deemed “nonsense.”
In the opposite corner, we have Jonathan Romney, recently of the Independent and now reviewing regularly for Film Comment. He’s “always been partial to [Sorrentino’s] baroque, crazily exuberant imagination” and: “I can’t remember when a film last gave me such a surge of pure pleasure—no, outright euphoria—as The Great Beauty,” a film that “sees Sorrentino ramping up his customary excess and taking it genuinely into the realms of the sublime.”
Marco Grosoli, also for Film Comment: “Paolo Sorrentino’s 2011 novel Everybody’s Right, his first, encompasses virtually all of his films to date. Its main character is a reprise of the depressed middle-aged singer from his debut feature, One Man Up , which was the perfect culmination of and swan song for the glorious Nineties Neapolitan New Wave. Less patently, the novel has echoes of The Consequences of Love , his curiously revisionist take on the male-friendship-exalting French-style noir or polar, and a morbid fascination with the type of dreary provincial ‘non-places’ featured in The Family Friend  and This Must Be the Place. Little wonder then, that part of the book is also set amidst the terrazze romane (upper-class rooftop parties) regularly attended by The Great Beauty’s main character, Jep Gambardella.”
Jep is “a sybarite played with a veneer of wit and fathomless soul by the Italian actor Toni Servillo, who dances into the story while celebrating his 65th birthday,” explains the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis. “Four decades earlier, Jep’s only novel, The Human Apparatus, was hailed as a masterpiece, but that was many years and glasses of Campari ago. These days, he works (if barely) as a journalist and lives in a terraced apartment overlooking the Colosseum…. Structured as a series of loosely connected episodes, the peripatetic story comes into focus soon after Jep’s birthday, when he learns that his first love, an enigmatic blonde who smiles at him in his memories of a seaside idyll, has died…. The lover’s death (which is symbolically yoked to 1968 and its revolutionary promise) hovers over the story and over Jep as he wanders Rome, dines with friends and meditates on his life in voice-overs that sound like confessions.”
“And that’s the entire movie,” writes Chuck Bowen in Slant, “the story of a man, who isn’t presented with the slightest whiff of a real problem, who eventually owns up to his superficiality with the implication that he might change in a manner that ultimately doesn’t really matter to anyone anyway. Sorrentino occasionally attempts to ground Jep’s plight in something weightier with the stray reference to the political frictions that would characterize a Berlusconi-era high society, but his film is really just a huge turn-on that has the bad manners to go sour, succumbing to its own self-delusions of moral/political grandeur.”
But for Michael Atkinson, writing in the Voice, “There’s little sense in trying to resist the film’s relentless boogie-woogie party vibe, its tumultuous visual banquet, its unpredictable sense of switchblade satire, its fools’ parade of modern grotesques, or its river of startling melancholy, turning from a wary trickle to a flash flood by film’s end. Sorrentino’s vision is the size of Rome itself, and his confidence is dazzling.”
At the AV Club, Mike D’Angelo notes that “there can be no question that Sorrentino hopes to pull off his generation’s La Dolce Vita (which did well to retain its Italian title; this one should probably have stuck with La Grande Bellezza). A lovely but rambling excursion through moneyed Rome, the film can’t have remotely the same impact as its predecessor, but it does offer a cornucopia of dazzling images—so many, frankly, that it becomes a bit exhausting, especially at nearly two and a half hours.”
“Flashbacks to Jep’s ‘Rosebud’ and a third-act attempt to titter toward transcendence via a Mother Teresa–like figure don’t quite hit their marks,” finds David Fear in Time Out New York, “yet Sorrentino’s portrait of an artist rising, phoenix-like, from the upper-crust ashes still feels like bold, first-class filmmaking. If he keeps producing works like this, the man may do the same for Italian cinema.”
More from Simon Abrams (RogerEbert.com, 4/4), Michael J. Anderson, Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 5/5), Dave Calhoun (Time Out London, 5/5), Richard and Mary Corliss (Time), Steve Erickson (Gay City News), Benjamin Mercer (L), Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), Anthony Quinn (Independent, 5/5), Antonia Quirke (Financial Times, 3/5), Emma Simmonds (Arts Desk), Jordan M. Smith (Ioncinema, 3.5/5), Ella Taylor (NPR), and Scott Tobias (Dissolve, 3.5/5).
More interviews with Sorrentino: Ariston Anderson (Filmmaker), Brian Brooks (FilmLinc Daily), David Ehrlich (Film.com), Eric Kohn (Indiewire), David Gregory Lawson (Film Comment), and Hillary Weston (BlackBook).
Update, 12/1: “This is a Fellini project, if you like,” grants David Thomson in the New Republic, “but it is a film full of music, dance, Rome’s crème brûlée light and a sensual tenderness, so that it might have been made by Renoir.”
Update, 12/6: “Though The Great Beauty includes a striking scene in which Mr. Servillo’s character stands on a cliff looking down at the wrecked cruise ship Costa Concordia, Mr. Sorrentino said his view of Italy, in his film and in his daily life, is of ‘a country where all of us fell asleep, rather than a country looking for direction.’ He added, ‘It may also be adrift, but my attention is focused on the sleeping part.'” And Larry Rohter carries on talking with Sorrentino for the New York Times.
Update, 12/25: “In Il Divo, Servillo was the gnarled Nosferatu at the center of a Machiavellian maelstrom,” writes Jim Ridley in the Nashville Scene. “Here, lips curled and eyebrows raised like sensualist antennae, he makes the accumulation of abiding memories—the curve of a woman’s back, the company of old friends, softly exhaled smoke—seem like a life’s pursuit.”
Updates, 3/30: For Carlotta Fonzi Kliemann, writing for Senses of Cinema, “the first two surfacing feelings are: what a stunning piece of work, and what a desperate country Italy has become.”
“There is a moment toward the end where Jep is watching another party, whose guests are cavorting around in a kind of conga dance known in Italian as ‘il trenino‘ (little train),” writes Alexander Stille for the New York Review of Books. “Jep says ‘They have the most beautiful trenini here in Rome. They are beautiful because they go nowhere.’ This sense of going nowhere is common in Italy today. The country’s economy has stalled for the past decade and made almost no progress in twenty years. The Italian Republic is in the company of countries like Zimbabwe for the world’s slowest growing economies. ‘Italy is dead,’ an Italian friend told me just the other day, having come from Rome to Paris to do some work. He didn’t like La Grande Bellezza, but he talked like one of its characters.”