The Great Beauty, writer/director Paulo Sorentino’s Golden Globe winning and Oscar nominated film, is certainly beautiful.
Between gorgeous visuals and exceptional audio design, this Italian picture strikes a delicate balance between Baz Luhrmann-style excess and genuine character-study.
Strong performances, especially from Toni Servallo (Jep), help.
As does a well developed protagonist.
Furthermore, The Great Beauty succeeds as a contemplative analysis of the ways people hide their insecurities and past mistakes. When Jep accosts Stefania (Galatea Ranzi), unabashedly exposing all of her self-deceptions, for example, Sorentino’s screenplay contains thematic truth. Just like these characters, all of us tell ourselves stories to make sense of our lives.
The Great Beauty frequently works as a character study, as well. That Jep is a popular and skilled socialite doesn’t guarantee he finds enjoyment in his behavior. Or lacks regret. Through Jep we begin to understand the experience some have as they age.
Yet, for all of its effectiveness, Sorentino’s film never resonates.
Partially because the director basks in visual and auditory stimulation for long sequences, holding shots of Roman architecture, fountains, beaches, grand ballrooms, statues, performance artists, and, of course, parties filled with various well-to-do faces. He stays with these sequences for such lengthy stretches that we are removed from the characters and their emotions and instead become observers of unrelated events.
Not only do all of these ‘stimulus-immersions’ render The Great Beauty languidly paced, but they also ensure that we never fully empathize with on-screen characters. The rare times Jep breaks down, we feel nothing. When he explodes at Stefania, we don’t feel her grief, his anger, or the observers’ discomfort. And so forth.
In other words, we can appreciate the artistry in Sorentino’s filmmaking (and it is certainly artistic), but that very strength proves a significant narrative flaw, one from which The Great Beauty never fully recovers.