A very interesting, personal, unique review of “The Great Beauty” by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi.
Can we imagine Italy any other way?
After seeing the film, “The Great Beauty” by Paolo Sorrentino, I felt at odds with the critics. Having lived in Italy for more than thirty years, whether I had viewed the film in Parma (where I reside) or in New York, (where I saw the film) my problem of double vision would have been nearly the same. But it grows more acute when I see or read things in the country that is not the one that originated it.
“The Great Beauty” dazzles and entertains, except for being, perhaps, a half an hour too long and having a few story lines that dangle in midair. As entertainment, who can resist Toni Servillo’s putti-like face and wide angle shots of Rome? Yet, I left the cinema at midtown truly disappointed that what I had seen were cliches. Something like a smoke alarm goes off in me, or more exactly, something visceral akin to when a mother feels her beloved prodigy could have done better, when this double vision presents a gap between what I know and what is being told. Sorrentino sets his film in Rome: a place that is also an idea.
His narrative essentially revisits Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” The fact is, however, that Fellini’s film was made in 1960. Fellini, a storyteller who was never particularly political, framed pleasure seeking and escape as inevitable responses to the need to cast off the sacrifice that defined life during and after the Second World War.“La Dolce Vita” explored, in what feels like dreamtime, lives generated by a sense that taking life to heart is futile. The film was a relief, truthful in a way that was shocking and original. Sorrentino’s characters live in a different era of politics and growth. But his version of Rome remains filled to the brim with people who are not only lost but unable to enjoy their lives.
Many of his intellectuals, with their compromised principles, are rich, untroubled by work but still unhappy. Sorrentino’s generation of leftists are quite similar to the right in their failures. Wandering through parallel scenes of the Eternal City, fifty years later, a viewer of “The Great Beauty” can only conclude that things have not changed and that perhaps it doesn’t matter. My question upon leaving the cinema was: Isn’t it time to stop looking back? Italy has transformed enormously since Fellini’s vision. One version of these recent years, which are sometimes referred to as the Berlusconi years, is that no one on either side in Italy has had the discipline, energy,or vision to do what it would take to stop a corrupt, mesmerizing politician. But is that true?
A film dedicated to the existential crises of young people, not the worn out, elderly Fellini clones in “The Great Beauty,” might yield interesting stories. A story with characters who are fighting the Mafia and indeed fighting Berlusconi’s cadre of forty lawyers, even characters who have led to the response of chosing Pope Francis might take us down streets in that ancient city that pose new points of view. That is where the American writer who knows Italy well feels tugs on her sensibility. Sorrentino’s solution for his subject is not just an Italian thing. It can be seen all over the world—a wish for simplification, for stereotypes, for single ideas projected into full length events. What is an American and which of its myths sell films? What is an Italian if, unpredictably, an Italian appears to be an educated, moral person who is far more complex and subtle than we are ready to believe.
In retelling Fellini’s story, isn’t Sorrentino saying Italians are the way they are. Isn’t he chiding us for our wish for purposefulness? Can’t we filmgoers understand that Italians have Berlusconi because Italians don’t really want to change? In that sense Sorrentino’s work is near satire, like Spaghetti Westerns: a luscious mannerist rendering in which art aspires to art in order to show us that art has no real value except as intriguing mirrors.
About the author
Wallis Wilde-Menozzi has lived in Italy in Rome and Parma for more than thirty years.. Her recent book, The Other Side of the Tiber, Reflections on Italy, Farrar, Straus andGiroux has been called “a magnificent meditation”on the country. Toscanelli’s Ray, a novel also published in 2013 by Cadmus Editions, SF., was praised for its “Toni Morrison-like lyricism,” and was called a “Florentine version of Don Delillo’s Bronx.”