I have been obsessed with French and Italian movies in particular lately. Well, this is not merely limited to movies, as I happen to love their music as well, but my obsession with French and Italian movies has bloomed rather recently.
My father loves French comedies and has been telling me for years how good they really are. Still, I guess I had felt a little distant toward French movies because I had this ridiculous idea about how they could only be appealing to those who are overly occupied with philosophical thoughts, even if they do not understand what the movie is trying to convey. I would like to elaborate on the last sentence a bit more to it make it a little clearer. You know how you always have this friend who sort of likes the kind of movie no one seems to be able to comprehend—partly because the screenwriter does not want the audience to grasp every single theme easily—and yet, whoever this friend is, s/he always pretends to have understood the very deep meaning of and behind the movie, to the degree of being condescending to those who have not enjoyed it because it was just a little too much for them at the time. If it helps you visualize said people, I would say that some among the “hipster” movement could be considered as those overly engaged with intricately “philosophical” French movies. Please do not get me wrong, I am not pointing fingers or trying to bash any group, I am merely stating my frustration with such people. And I guess part of my distance toward these movies is due to “Amélie.” It is a good film, granted, but you do not watch it when you are nine—it will leave you with a minor trauma.
Nonetheless, I realized that it was not the movies’ fault—it was not they who were the snobs, but rather a small part of the people watching them—and hence it was very stupid for me to have avoided them. Then I started watching some French and Italian collaborations, and actually enjoyed them much more than I did the mainstream movies of the same genre. I really like French comedies and romantic comedies by the way, with “Paris-Manhattan” being one of the films that I especially enjoyed.
But what I want to talk more about in this installment is actually “La Grande Bellezza” (The Great Beauty), the 2014 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. I have to admit one thing here: I like anything Italian, from movies to music to design to books to (obviously) food, and so on. Hence it comes as no surprise to those who know me that I have the tendency to like something more when I learn that it is Italian, and I knew that this particular film was Italian.
It is set in Rome, which makes it all the more appealing, you presume, but the movie actually leaves you resenting Rome. “Rome” can be interpreted to represent any big city that seems to offer people a lot, but that can actually make a person end up a lovely but lonely, sad older man—in this case that is Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo. I cannot begin to tell you how charismatic and charming Servillo is and how perfect he was for the role. He has these eyes that tell you a lot; he does not have to make grand gestures or put on explicit expressions to help his audience understand what is going on in his mind—his eyes alone do the job. And his smile has the very same effect; i.e., you can tell what he is thinking about just by seeing his smile—Italian men generally have very genuine smiles, though, so this may not be an attribute unique to Servillo. Still, I believe he was the perfect Jep Gambardella for many other reasons.
The movie starts off in a very odd way—there is a death, but it is weirdly subtle, so you initially do not understand. Then throughout the movie you realize that the deaths are never very explicitly pictured. Director Paolo Sorrentino does not want to make the movie even more dramatic than it already is; hence, he leaves subtle signs and hints to help the audience understand such occurrences.
Throughout the film, Jep wanders the streets of Rome, especially at night, and observes the people of Rome. You get the beautiful side of the city as well, but as I stated above, you do end up resenting it a bit, particularly when Jep’s friend Romano decides to leave Rome and head back home—to a small town he had left probably 30 or more years ago—without taking any of his belongings with him, stating that Rome has “disappointed” him. I really liked Romano in the movie. He was this quirky and slightly pathetic but nice, kind and loving man, so to have seen him leave makes you a bit sad as well.
Sorrentino wants you to see how people with great regrets and empty lives—as Jep and many others in the movie put it—tend to do crazy things to keep their youth as they get older. There is this scene, which is a bit disturbing to be honest, where a crowd of people gathered in a largish room are getting all kinds of weird injections in their faces to keep their “youth.”
Another weird but fantastic part of the movie is when Jep gets to meet La Santa (the Saint), age 104, who gives him the advice he needs to finally move on with his life and be happy. La Santa, who is apparently supposed to remind you somewhat of Mother Teresa, was not actually played by a 104-year-old woman, but it really looks as if she had been.
Sorrentino’s must-see film leaves us partly sad but mostly grateful and delighted, and reminds the audience that they still have a chance to change whatever displeases them in their lives.