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In 1960, Federico Fellini gave us one of the greatest films of all time, La Dolce Vita, a savage look at society Italiana at the time, as well as a heartbreaking character study of a journalist who, by the end of the movie, is totally and spiritually lost (La Dolce Vita also gave us the word Paparazzi for those who like to play Trivial Pursuit).
It’s been more than fifty years since that seminal film found its way into cinematic history and today we have The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezze), from screenwriters Umberto Contarello and Paolo Sorrentino, who also directed. This time, though, the movie is a much more vicious and savage look at Momma Roma’s inhabitants and the writer, a journalist, is totally and spiritually lost from the beginning of the film.
I think the comparison is very apt because The Great Beauty feels, in many ways, as if it were a sequel to that earlier film, that is, if the central character were still alive and only 65. When I told a friend this, his first question was, but is it like the neo-realist Fellini or the Fellini after 8 ½?
His reaction when I said it was of the later was not the most of positives, but people should be forewarned. The Great Beauty is not like the Fellini of Rome: Open City (yes, I know, he didn’t direct it, but he was a writer on it, so there), La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. This is the wild and deliriously dreamlike Fellini of Amarcord, Roma and Cassanova.
In other words, there is precious little plot here. Instead, it is a series of visually stunning vignettes as the central character travels through various scenes of daily high life in Rome including some amazing and beautiful a cappella performances in unusual outdoor locations; a stage performer in the middle of nowhere who runs head first into the stone of a bridge to prove a point of some kind that is never really clear (which, I think, is the point, I think); a doctor who gives Botox injections in a cathedral like office while a crowd of desperate haves look on; and, perhaps most movingly, a dinner party honoring a 109 year old nun who has yet to be canonized, but everyone considers to be a saint, and who is going to climb the steps of a shrine on her knees.
Contarello and Sorrentino’s Roma is filled with the grotesqueries made famous by Fellini (though on a scale of one to ten, Fellini’s grotesqueries were a twelve while here we have maybe a seven; but that’s not a negative, just an observation). It’s a city filled with hypocrites and people who have lost their way and are floundering to find meaning in their lives, if they ever really had a way in the first place. It’s filled with people who travel from wild party to wild party because it’s the place to be (including one in which the guests start a dance train and our hero says, “I love the trains in Rome, they never go anywhere”—a bit on the nose, perhaps, but still a fun line).
I think the easiest way to describe it all is that from Contarello and Sorrentino’s point of view, Rome is nothing but one big shallow and empty performance art piece crammed full of nothing but smaller shallow and empty performance art pieces.
Perhaps the only thing sadder than any of this is that in spite of all the shallowness and emptiness at the core of it, Rome still seems ten times more alive and creative and vibrant than Los Angeles.
Our hero, Jep Gambardella, is played by Toni Servillo, quite possibly Italy’s greatest actor who has given incredible performances in such films as Il Divo (as prime minister Giulio Andreotti), Gomorrah, The Girl by the Lake and Gorbaciof (as you know who complete with bald head and birth mark).
For context, Jep is in many ways a modern day Truman Capote and Marcel Proust, two writers who spent much of their life in the midst of the rich, the influential, the movers and shakers, quietly observing and recording the foibles of the upper crust. In fact, Jep says his goal was to become someone who was not just invited to all the A parties, but he wanted to be the person who could make or break one if he wanted to.
But unlike Capote and Proust, Jep only wrote one book, a novel he penned when he was much younger. It was well received and basically was his calling card into the society he ended up being so much a part of. Why he never wrote another is something he will not tell anyone. But the reason is the reason for the title of the film.
As comically witty as The Grand Beauty is; as visually exciting and stunning as it is; as brilliant as Servillo is, the movie has an issue or two. For one thing, one could question whether it really has anything new to say; it is basically La Dolce Vita, but La Dolce Vita has already been done. All the movie really says is that Rome hasn’t changed much in fifty years. I’m not saying that’s not a worthwhile observation, but still, it does kind of rob anyone of being able to say, “so this is what Rome has come to,” since it really hasn’t come to that, it’s always been that way.
And I’m not convinced that the movie really sold the cause as to why Jep never wrote another book. So little time is devoted to that episode in his life, it ends up feeling more like an excuse rather than a reason.
Yet it is an interesting mirror image of Fellini’s movie in many ways. While La Dolce Vita is a film about someone losing his soul, The Grand Beauty is about someone who has already lost it, but by the end, has found it again.
In the end, The Grand Beauty is a great ride of a movie, a roller coaster of evocative sights, sounds and savagery. It may not be La Dolce Vita, but that doesn’t mean it should be missed.
Xavier Dolan, the writer/director wunderkind from French Canada, has now completed four films. His first was the semi-sorta-autobiographical I Killed My Mother, made when he was 18 (hence the wunderkind appellation). Since then he is responsible for Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways and now Tom at the Farm.
In certain ways all four films are very similar in style. On the plus side, they are all visually stunning. Dolan has an incredible eye and every film has looked and felt different in aesthetic approach. On the negative side, they have all had weak screenplays, except perhaps for the first one–the autobiographical one (which probably explains why it is the most aesthetically successful film of the four; we all have at least one in us, don’t we, whether we’re a writer or not).
And Tom at the Farm is no different. It looks great, but the story, characters and dialog just don’t work and, as was often the case for the other films as well, are often ridiculous.
The story starts out well. It follows the title character (played by Dolan himself—Dolan often also produces, edits and does some designing on his films—or co- does it all—so he really has no one to blame but himself) as he travels from the city to the farm of his late lover, accompanied by a wonderful French version of The Windmills of Your Mind (Dolan knows his pop music—he made a brilliant use of Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) in Hearbeats).
His lover’s funeral is coming up, but the kick is that his lover’s mother doesn’t know that her son was gay and the lover’s brother, Francis (played by Pierre-Yves Cardinal, who gives the strongest performance in the film), is virulently and psychopathically homophobic and is determined to keep his brother’s queerness a secret.
At first appearance this does have all the makings of a first rate thriller (though as time went on, instead of Alfred Hitchcock, the film more constantly reminded me of Die, Die My Darling, Talulah Bankhead’s unfortunate coda, and not the most fortunate of references). And much of the early scenes are helped by the tense, dynamic music score of Gabriel Yared. But Tom… is also one of those movies where you can pinpoint the exact moment it stops working. And it’s early on.
At the funeral, Tom is suppose to give a speech and when he doesn’t, Francis traps him in the men’s room, takes him into a stall and starts slapping him around. Tom has three choices. He can leave and go back to the city. He can fight back. Or he can take it. And for some reason that I will never comprehend, Tom chooses multiple choice “C”. And at that point, the movie takes a turn from which it cannot possibly recover.
There are two problems with the choice Dolan has Tom make. The first is that it wasn’t remotely believable. Dolan doesn’t come close to selling it. But if we do buy it, then it makes Tom uninteresting, boring and unsympathetic; sort of, well, if that’s your choice, you pretty much deserve whatever happens to you, you went in with your eyes wide open. In fact, when this scene happened, I remember thinking, “That’s it, I’m done, I am so out of here”.
I suspect that there is suppose to be some sort of homoerotic tension between Tom and Francis that is suppose to explain all of their actions, no matter how ridiculous they seem. But if so, this tension never takes root. Dolan even goes to such extremes as staging a ballroom dancing scene between Francis and Tom, as Francis used to do with his brother—but the scene is not remotely erotic, it’s just weird, and the sexual tension is quite noticeably absent (I mean, if you want to see a sexually tense, homoerotic scene of two men dancing, check out the tuxedoed tango between Rutger Hauer and Jeroen Krabbe in Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange).
The plot becomes even more absurd and unbelievable when after being constantly browbeaten and threatened by Francis, Tom asks Sara, a friend and the woman his ex’s mother thinks was involved with her son, to come down. He asks a friend to come to a potentially life threatening situation. And Sara comes. And when Francis starts pulling his shit on her, Sara reacts the way Tom should have, but didn’t; she hits Francis back and pulls a knife on him. Okay, so far so good.
But get this. You are not going to believe this. I mean, you are really not and maybe you should be sitting down. After all that happens, Sara is driven to the bus to return home and there, with Tom watching, she gets happy drunk with this Francis (yeah, HAPPY drunk), and after Tom takes a walk, she has sex with this sociopathic asshole. No, I’m not kidding. This really happened. I know, I know. I couldn’t believe it either.
But that’s how it went down.
I’m not sure why Dolan feels compelled to write his own screenplays. From what I can tell, it’s just not his strong suit. There’s nothing wrong with that, many if not most directors are not that great of writers. But every time I see his films, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like with a stronger author at the core. However, once again, I guess we will not find out.