In Theaters – “The Great Beauty”

01660.jpgThe Great Beauty (2013; Dir.: Paolo Sorrentino)

GRADE: B

By Mike Dub

The Great Beauty, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, is a lavish, beautiful, nearly epic film about one man’s quest to find meaning in his life and his work.  Awash in a culture that operates only in the opposing poles of high abstraction and base debauchery, writer Jeb Gambardella suffers an existential crisis when his life becomes suddenly cluttered with intrusive moments of humanity.

The film works best as a satire of the rich and culturally elite of Rome.  Cultural cache is the reigning currency, as artists find more success with gimmicks than artistic expression (“He covers basketballs with confetti, he’s sensational!”), critics delight in savagery (“We’re all on the brink of despair”), and hipsters try to out-reference each other (“The only jazz scene worth listening to today is Ethiopian jazz”).  Director Paolo Sorrentino creates this world with a clarity and precision that, one can assume, only comes from experience.

At two hours and twenty minutes, possibly the greatest achievement of the film is that it never gets boring.  Even while focusing on Jep’s emotional struggles, the camera finds ways to bring energy and life to the screen, constantly moving, but with great delicacy, relishing the beauty of its images.

The visuals are so captivating (a few misguided attempts at CGI notwithstanding), and the satire so punchy, it’s a shame when the film finally succumbs to the weight of its dogged profundity.  Particularly in the final act, the film deflates its own sense of wonder and passion, explaining moments that are better left ambiguous, and belittling the supposed magic of life by literalizing it.

The Great Beauty is a good film, but it is also the kind of self-affirming pageantry that is perfectly suited for an Oscar.  It’s not a stretch to think that the film reflects a sensibility most Hollywood citizens would find easily relatable: enveloped in a world of wealth, idleness, and vapidity, in which everyone is a soulless, posturing fool, our artist hero stands singularly contemplative.  Other people are only important in as much as they usher him toward confronting his own mortality.  Even death itself comes in a pleasant package: comforting, gentle, forgiving.  Shrouded in the pretense of an introspective, personal meditation on death, the film slides delicately into an ego-stroking vindication of the good life.  It’s a message people will vote for, if only to convince themselves it’s true.