Jep Gambardella has reached the age of 65 and, though he may now prefer to talk to women rather than have sex with them, still loves a great party in the sybaritic high life of Rome. Increasingly, though, loss and mortality catch up with him. If the subject is a familiar one for a more elegiac kind of moviemaking, the way it's told by Paolo Sorrentino in La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) constantly surprises.
There's the stupendous cinematography, of course: scene after scene of stunning colour, composition and richness - when I was looking for images, I found myself fulminating about how many great situations were missing - beautifully fused with a heady mix of music (delighted to hear Arvo Pärt's 'My heart's in the Highlands'). But above all there's a finely shaded script which turns melancholy into humour. Much of this is carried by our Jep, the still handsome and versatile Toni Servillo who can change an expression at his big party, in a giddying sequence near the beginning of the film, from one of smug cock of the roost
Later his speech to an insecure, self-praising friend should become a cult scene of cinema. The other star of La Grande Bellezza is Rome itself, putting Sorrentino's work up there with Rossellini's Roma, città aperta and Fellini's La Strada, two of Pope Francis's favourites as I mentioned in the last post (Roma is a lesser, but intriguing, film which I haven't seen since student days, when I didn't quite know what to make of it). Of course I loved it that so many of the places I strode on my noon to evening walk the last time I was there feature: the streets, cloisters and gardens around Santa Sabina on the beloved Aventine, the miraculous false perspectives of Borromini's little passageway in the Palazzo Spada, the low-level walk along the Tiber's edge to the Castel Sant'Angelo. But they're never there as window dressing. The scene which really moved me to tears was when Jep and his sad-eyed new friend Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli)
are given a night tour of the great palaces by a man who has all the keys, thanks to his association with principesse. That truly is supernaturally beautiful.
Agreeing with Emma Simmond's Arts Desk review which inspired me to go see it, I found only one flaw: that at what turned out to be the three-quarter mark - and I hadn't checked how long the film was due to last - there seemed to be a failure of pace. Sure, it's a leisurely meditation, but J was also feeling a slight sense of ennui at that point too. It recovers as the centre of gravity moves from the profane to the sacred in the figure of a mysterious, hundred-and-something saintly nun: far-fetched only if you haven't succumbed to the stranger side (by which I don't mean the St Peter's experience) of Roman religiosity.
And in any case, what would you cut? It's all suffused with that grand beauty which our hero says has too often eluded him in a meandering existence. The original trailer, though of course I want it to show more, captures the two poles of the protagonist's existence rather well.
Glad we saw this in the cinema (in the company of a sparse and totally silent crowd). The other I wanted to go see, again courtesy of a five-star Arts Desk review, but which we've had to be content with borrowing from LoveFilm and watched last night, is Pablo Berger's Blancanieves, Spanish silent re-telling of the Snow White story set in the 1920s (and conceived before The Artist, which I still haven't seen).
What a magnificent piece of story-telling, again full of visual riches in every tableau (superb cinematography by Kiko de la Rica). There's a distancing here which prevents much emotional involvement, but it's flawless as a stylistic exercise with, again, stupendous performances, especially from Maribel Verdú as a truly wicked stepmother
and Macarena Garcia as the teethy-smiling lady toreador our Snow White, Carmen, becomes following a life-saving encounter with circus people. Plus a winning debut from a nine year old with no previous experience as the young Carmencita and an enormous, camera-friendly cockerel. No point in my cataloguing the riches and spoiling the surprises: see it, marvel at the aptness of Alfonso de Vilalloga's non-stop score and succumb to the enchantment.
To conclude, first a statistic which I hope will raise a gentle smile: did you know that six out of seven dwarfs aren't Happy? And I leave you with a 39-second trailer for Blancanieves, rapid images accompanied by a touch of theremin - for the evil one, of course - followed by flamenco 1920s style.
8/10 Still in the right area, here's my Arts Desk tribute to Patrice Chéreau, a fitfully great film-maker and an even greater opera director, who died yesterday of lung cancer at the too young age of 68. I have some catching up to do now on his filmography.