It is, perhaps, impossible to make an ode to Rome without invoking Federico Fellini, the great Italian filmmaker of La Dolce Vita and Roma. Though Paolo Sorrentino does so only indirectly in La grande bellezza, or The Great Beauty, it's impossible not to think of the maestro...and how Sorrentino pales in comparison.
Italy's official submission for Academy Award consideration plays at times like a more conventional, less daring version of 1972’s Roma. Reluctant journalist Jep Gambardella (Gomorrah’s Tony Servillo, here vaguely annoying) is famous for being famous, known for his one-and-done early novel but more so these days as "king of the socialites." A typically self-aware snob defined by cynical ennui, the distressingly privileged Gambardella attends soirees by defeatist default, since there’s nothing better to do. He finds a perch and looks down at his peers as they dance-train to "We No Speak Americano." When pressed, he will insult his peers to their faces, calling them on their misplaced superiority, thorough hypocrisy, lack of ambition, and failure of accomplishment.
Of course, when he lashes out, he also acknowledges his own self-loathing, but we’re meant to sympathize with him because he is smarter than the rest, and because he is willing to face the truth. The sympathies don’t actually kick in until he nebulously decides to do something about his human condition, which involves attempts to care (mostly about his editor, a proud little person played by Giovanna Vignola), strike up new relationships (as with a north-of-forty stripper played by Sabrina Ferilli), and perhaps even do his job of investigating the world.
Jep’s journey takes him and us around Rome, to sightsee the usual fountains and museums, but also a nouveau plastic-surgery emporium and an art installation about the passage of time (one of the film’s few genuinely deeply felt moments). Sorrentino works up satire in the party scenes and the like, though, after initiating a very funny parody of Mother Theresa in a 103-year-old candidate for sainthood (Sonia Gessner), the director and his co-writer Umberto Contarello pump the brakes and suggest that she well may be as holier than thou as her supporters claim.
Ultimately, this 142-minute meander makes three points: Rome has drifted into déclassé debauchery but still clings to the glory of its heritage, modern life for the elite has functionally become an empty existence of talking about nothing, and only true beauty, great beauty, means anything. Young beauty—in the forms of his first lady love, his novel, and bygone Roma—is what nostalgically haunts and persistently eludes the latter-day Jep and, by extension, the director for whom he’s a Felliniesque stand-in. Unfortunately, The Great Beauty is its own object lesson in the inability to recapture lightning in a bottle. On its own merits, Sorrentino’s film ain’t half-bad, but it’s no Fellini picture.
Criterion sends home The Great Beauty—recently awarded Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars—in one of its Dual-Format Editions comprised of a Blu-ray disc and two DVDs (one for the feature and one for extras). The word for the picture quality here is "lush": Criterion's new 2K digital film transfer, approved by director Paolo Sorrentino, features particularly vivid color, as well as rock-solid black level and lovely detail. Thanks to well-calibrated contrast, the transfer achieves an impressive illusion of lifelike depth. As for the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, music makes the biggest impression: the richly varied soundtrack makes full and lively use of the surround channels; meanwhile the dialogue gets a crisp, soundly prioritized rendering.
Bonus features primarily consist of three terrific new and exclusive interviews produced by the Crtierion Collection: director "Paulo Sorrentino" (37:59, HD) in conversation with Italian cultural critic Antonio Monda, star "Toni Servillo" (12:35, HD), and screenwriter "Umberto Contarello" (11:45, HD). Sorrentino discusses his career to date, as well as what he intended to capture in The Great Beauty about Rome and the Italian political and cultural landscape. Servillo likewise looks backwards to discuss his series of collaborations with Sorrentino, while also discussing The Great Beauty and his personal contributions to the creation and interpretation of his character. Contarello covers similar ground, but from his own perspective: his own collaborations with Sorrentino and his own take on the creation and development of Jep Gambardella.
Rounding out the set are two "Deleted Scenes" (2:46, HD) and the theatrical "Trailer" (2:08, HD), as well as the customary booklet featuring credits, tech specs, film stills and, in this case, an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.
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