The Great Beauty is a remarkable film telling the story of a 65 year old Italian culture journalist, Jeb Gambardella. He wrote a book decades back after a young romance, but since then has settled for the life of a socialite in Rome.
– You can excuse great films being long, but a few scenes could have been cut here. I’m really not sure on the justification for the opening scenes of a choir singing next to a classical fountain, an Asian tour party, and a Chinese-looking photographer-tourist who shoots the Rome skyline and then has a heart attack. In many films, re-watching these unfamiliar faces at the start would suddenly make everything click (“wow, the woman who later does X, was there at the start reading that newspaper”) but as far as I can tell, no-one in the opening scenes ever appears again. Sure it’s very arty. Is the poor tourist simply overcome by the great beauty of the capital? This isn’t Hollywood, and the girl you see in scene 3, doesn’t need to reappear in scene 24 as a decisive character. Sometimes people are just there in European cinema for no reason; just for the beauty and poetry of the moment. But still, some things didn’t seem to contribute much except confusion.
– As an unrelated point, it’s awful when the tourist starts snapping away with his camera. He’s so obviously ACTING at taking photos. It’s so common to see bad acting when it comes to people in films taking photos – showing they almost certainly have never used a camera before. But what’s odd is that this isn’t a skill like playing the piano. They are actors on a film set, surrounded by camera enthusiasts! Can’t someone just show them what people really look like when they’re taking pictures?
– The dance scene that properly introduces the key characters is one of the most remarkable cinematic scenes I think I’ve ever seen. It is totally over the top and riotous. The quick cuts and up-sound make for an incredible mix.
– One of the key point of the film seemed to be way people use high culture to boast and be snobbish. We see inflated egos talk about their love for Proust, never watching tv, adapting plays, doing venerable work. As is said at the end, there’s just so much ‘blah blah blah’. Reference is twice made to Flaubert’s reported attempts to write a book about nothing, hinting that this is a film about people who are vacuous. Rome in itself is treated as a symbol of this – several of the characters came to Rome, and failed to achieve their dreams or produce real art. Getting away is what can save them. Rome is a trick. Rome and its high life makes people ‘fall’ from the greatness they could otherwise achieve. Jeb doesn’t have an answer when a child says he is nothing. The congo dance at Rome’s parties are described as the best because they don’t go anywhere.
– There’s a lot of ridicule for the contemporary art scene; from the aqueduct actor who can’t explain what she’s doing, to the child painter, and perhaps also the magician and the stylised botox injections. But art is not entirely dismissed – the photographic exhibition that Jeb visits is seen as genuinely remarkable.
– The lead character’s clothes were incredible. It made me want to go out and visit the tailor, being sure to stuff a handkerchief in my breast pocket.
– Other things I liked – the sweeping camera movements, the little scenes of detail, some incredible and eclectic music.
– As with so many journalists in film, this one is clearly doing well for himself. His luxurious apartment directly overlooks the coliseum. In short he lives like a millionaire. I’m not sure journalists in real life live so well.
– Technology is frowned upon – when his initial love interest talks about posting pictures on Facebook it strikes a discord with the classical Italian beauty of the piece, and spells the end of her chances. The playwright who tries to impress the girl finds that at the end of his masterpiece, she’s staring into her smartphone. We know where the film director’s sympathies lie.
– This being Italian cinema, the Catholic church plays a central role, though as in Dolce Vita, it is really a complete mystery to the lead characters – a mix of crooks, eccentrics and non-rational mystics. The traditions and religious art have a power, but anything religious is a chasm away from our high society characters, and church figures have no answers to give. There’s a sense of incomprehension.
– Africa-watchers will probably be less than amused. The continent gets three stereotypical mentions (that I noted) – it is the place where the straw clothed tribal people come from, it is the place ‘The Saint’ works and saves the poor, and it is the place Viola goes to after the death of her son, selling all her possessions to the church. Then there’s the line (below) about ‘Ethiopian jazz’.
– In a way, the film tries to say that Jeb does find some redemption. He learns briefly to love again. He plans to start writing again. He learns that there is some life beneath the blah blah emptiness. He got lazy in the partying for a few decades, but we leave him thinking that maybe he will return to love and art.
– Jeb appreciates that deep down all the characters (all of us?) are failures; the worst is when you don’t see your own lies. One of the most edge-of-seat scenes is when a friend at a party challenges him to explain what lies she tells about herself, and Jeb goes for the jugular and exposes her life for the sham that it is.
– The script was frequently exceptional (and I’m sure even better in Italian). Lines I liked (I have paraphrased, not taking down the lines exactly):
o “Why doesn’t he talk?” “Because he listens.”
o “Rome makes you waste a lot of time”
o “Rome has disappointed me.”
o “The jazz is good!” “Not really. The Ethiopian jazz scene is the only interesting scene nowadays.”
o “What job do you do?” “Me? I’m rich.” “The best job there is!”
o “In this country, to be taken seriously, you have to take yourself seriously!”
o “I didn’t just want to go to parties. I wanted the power to make them fail.”