ARTS & CULTURE
02/04/2014 11:18 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2014

The Great Beauty

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The imagery of Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty is almost as old as his lead character who has just turned 65. Jeb Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a disaffected novelist and journalist, whose reputation is based on a work called The Human Apparatus published forty years before. He's the observer, the repository of the film's sensibility and a stand-in for the playboy journalist that Mastroianni played in Fellini's La .Dolce Vita.The notion of the superior soul through whose eyes we see the world is indeed an anachronistically romantic strategy whose provenance goes right back to the character of Aschenbach in Death in Venice--although there is more than a hint of parody in the extravagance of Sorrentino's creation. And what does our brooding artistic figure see? A selection of the demimonde who are equally disaffected as he is. In fact, it's as if Sorrentino had made The Great Beauty for American audiences nostalgic for the Rome of movies like 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita since it's hard to believe that any Roman or Italian for that matter would recognize the dandyish boulevardier that Servillo plays. Are there any denizens of Rome's intelligentsia who still dress like the Alan Delon character in Eclipse? The persona Servillo embodies is both over the top and over the hill and one wonders about the very newspaper which subsidizes his current beat--a cross section of esthetic inanity and decadent aristocracy. Is this vision of Rome a product of the Berlusconi media empire? That his editor and confident Dadina (Giovanna Vignola) is a dwarf only solidifies the sense of the movie's tabloid thrust. Sorrentino has appropriated Fellini's circus, but there are too many acts and they're all curiously short-lived. Fellini had a real sense of narrative, but The Great Beauty is a series of jump cuts, cheap thrills that have little narrative arc. Both Fellini and Antonioni dealt with a similar palette, but while a movie like L'avventura challenged the whole way we conceive of narrative, it still told a story. In his perambulations Jeb comes across Talia Concept (Anita Kravos), a Marina Abramovic like performance artist whose has a hammer and sickle carved into her red pudenda and whose cri de coeur is a head butt. Later Jeb witnesses a pre-adolescent abstract expressionist who makes millions by letting out piercing cries as she throws cans of paint on a scrim. Stephen King should appropriate this last character for a future horror novel, but she's just one of the many disingenuous figures in this period piece masking as an exploration of present day Rome.

This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}