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"The Great Beauty" raises deep issues about meaning and purpose

(Vatican Radio) In the throes of a deep political, economic and cultural crisis, Italy received a welcome boost last week when its entry for "Best Foreign Film" was awarded the coveted Oscar film recognition,

Starring Toni Servillo in the role of the protagonist, Gep Gambardella, and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, "La Grand Bellezza" ("The Great Beauty") is a beautiful and disturbing film; a feast for the eyes as the eternal beauty of the city of Rome, bathed in the glow of its special light, is pitted against the empty hedonism of wealthy socialites as they follow the beat of endless parties in a daze of self-indulgence and vulgarity...

Vatican Radio's Linda Bordoni asked Father Peter Malone, a film critic for SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication, what he thought of the film...

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Please find below Father Peter Malone's review of "The Great Beauty" for SIGNIS:

Just when you are pleased that you have made the Fellini connection with La Grande Bellezza, you find that every reviewer and every blogger has had the same thought. Never mind, it is, most definitely, very close to a Fellini film, especially through most of the running time, La Dolce Vita. It is Rome and La Dolce Vita since the release of the film in 1959. This is one of Italy’s most eminent directors in recent years, Paolo Sorrentino, and his meditation on Rome, its hedonistic life and culture and, in the latter part of the film, its worldly Catholicism.

For those who have visited Rome, for those who know it well, the film will be fascinating, stopping along the way at many landmarks in the city as well as many of the ordinary goings-on in the different quarters. For those who do not know Rome, it may be difficult to see some of the points or appreciate how it Roman in look and style, language and image that the film is.

The opening is a tantalising look at some aspects of the city, Japanese tourists and one dropping dead after taking photos, a choir of women singing in the alcove of an agent building… And then a huge scream and in an instant transition to La Dolce Vita, 21st century style, pounding music, writhing dancing, over made-up older women, under-clad younger women, older men, younger gigolo types, with atmosphere of rhythms and beats, provocative sexual poses, drugs. And from this emerges the man whose 65th birthday it is, Jep (Tony Servillo who has appeared in most of Sorrentino’s films), King of the socialites, known by everyone, knowing everyone, mingling with the guests, a complacent smile on his face (or is it incipient boredom?), a writer of only one novel, 40 years earlier, everybody asking him why he has not written more. He has, but only articles and commentary on Rome’s culture.

As the plot emerges, Jep and some other characters also emerge. over the long running time of the film, we are shown Jep in various situations, like a pseudo-dramatic art performance in a field outside Rome and an interview with the pretentious performer, going to an exhibition photos of every day in the life of a now middle-aged man, going to a kind of clinic where an expert (or a charlatan) injects into clients, including a nun who has sweaty hands, and charging a small fortune for his services. There is also a little girl whose parents encourage her to take buckets of paint, throw them on a canvas, her hands over them and produce an expensive inverter, work of art’.

On the personal side, Jep encounters a friend who had married the love of Jep’s life long since. He has read her diaries and found very little reference to himself, only as a companion, and says there is no reference to.Jep. This occasions flashbacks to his encounter with the girl – and his regrets that he never followed through with her? A father is concerned about the sexual activities of his middle-aged daughter. Jep becomes friendly with her, goes to social events and parties with her, takes her to an exclusive gallery, but she is ill. And there is his writer friend of 40 years who is desperate to succeed theatrically and, momentarily, does. Another friend has a giraffe in the Coliseum and promises to do a magic trick to make the giraffe disappear.

After all the partying, after all the strange counters encounters, with all the Fellini style grotesques, and his impending age, Jep begins to take stock of his life. At a wedding reception, he encounters a cardinal, ascetic looking, pleased with all his cardinalatial robes, who is touted to be the next Pope, but his conversation is generally confined to recipes, cooking and cozying up to Roman aristocracy. (It would be interesting to see Pope Francis review of the film and his comment on this character!).Then, at the end, a 104-year-old nun who has worked in Africa visits Rome. She has a reputation as a saint (echoes of Mother Teresa) and is being touted by an over-enthusiastic, unctuous entrepreneur. However, as she sits on a kind throne and dignitaries, from various faiths, come to kiss her hand, her legs dangle, she shakes her sandal and it falls off. It is an arresting symbol of this artificial scene.

Jep wants to ask the Cardinal a spiritual question, but the Cardinal is distracted and hurries off to lunch. Later Jep says to him that he doesn’t think he should ask the question – because he could be disappointed if the Cardinal had no answer.

The sister agrees to go to a dinner at Jep’s house, the Cardinal trying to draw attention to himself and his recipes, while the entrepreneur explains that she eats roots – and the Cardinal saying he liked roots with lemon! She excuses herself to go to the toilet and is later found asleep on the floor, which is her custom. In the morning, a flock of huge birds, winging themselves out of Europe, are found on the balcony. She breathes out and they fly away. She advises Jep that roots are important. While she ascends the Scala Santa on her knees, indicating faith and belief in the transcendent, Jep goes back to the lighthouse and the memories of his early love, the final two images of the film being the sister on the steps and the image of the girl Jep loved.

The final credits are beautiful, gliding along the Tiber, the camera roving around, watching people on the bridges, gliding under the bridges, to a rather plaintive melody. Jep has been asked about his search for the great beauty. He seems to be coming close to the end of his quest.