Movie review: The Great Beauty is bellisimo!

The visually captivating Italian import is nominated for the year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Posted by Julie Garisto on Tue, Feb 11, 2014 at 6:40 PM

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Review: 4 out of 5 stars.

Start narrowing down your Oscar picks in one of the Academy Awards’ less-hyped categories. The 2013 Italian film The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) is held over at Tampa Theatre until this Thursday, Feb. 13. Showings are at 7:30 p.m. 
The visually captivating Italian import is nominated for the year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, and its plot centers on Jep Gambardella, a Roman socialite with philosophical quandaries, recalling an older Marcello Mastroianni post-La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2.

Comparisons aside, Great Beauty director Paolo Sorrentino has a distinctive and complex style all his own, ruled by polarities of raw, candid intimacy and cerebral, surreal detachment. Star Toni Servillo is suave and subtly captivating as Gambardella (pictured) and is somewhat of a regular in Sorrentino's films.

His Jep lives by night, throwing and attending lavish parties captured in hectic, disturbing and gorgeously shot scenes. Gatherings held by both Jep and his inner circle of wealthy friends are often grotesque and excessive. We see plastic surgery gone awry, a dank strip club and a crazy, memorable depiction of child exploitation-meets-child prodigy. Meanwhile, scenes between Jep's closest confidantes — his editor and a playwright friend in particular — are intimate, soothing and succinctly sincere. The contrasts through deft light and film editing are brilliantly juxtaposed. Apart from some sentimental and philosophical excesses, this film is about as close to perfect as you can get.

The character Jep is a fascinating conversation piece all on his own. He is a high-profile, high society writer reminiscent of Tom Wolfe but has authored only one novel, widely considered a masterpiece. Just about everyone he encounters in the film asks Jep why he never wrote another novel. Even a peculiar Mother Teresa knock-off — whom I'd wager to be symbolic of the intense Catholic spirituality of Romans (and lack thereof) — asks Jep about the book he never wrote. He just shrugs and and dashes off a self-deprecating joke that wears thin as he runs out of quips.

News of the death of a past love and a couple of unexpected events shake Jep out of his complacency, facing his own mortality. He finds himself taking stock, looking back and looking around him to find that special meaning to his life that would inspire the novel he has yet to write. In keeping with the clever, at times opaque script, we don't get a major epiphany from Jeb, but we do get a satisfying sense of redemption. 

Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi illustrate Jep's odyssey with abundant eye candy that can be oh-so-Italian and then chilling with Kubrick-esque starkness.

You could argue that Rome is the real star of this film. Scenes in the Eternal City are played out as loving, symbolic homages, edged with a love-hate bittersweetness you feel for any place you've become intimate with.

The Great Beauty screens weeknights at 7:30 p.m.; 1:30, 4:45 and 7:30 on Saturday and 6 p.m. on Sunday. Tampa Theatre is at 711 N. Franklin St., Tampa. $11 regular admission, $9 for matinees before 6 p.m. tampatheatre.org.

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