The Great Beauty ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

In 1935, German director Leni Riefenstahl released Triumph of the Will, the Nazi propaganda film to the public at the Berlin Ufa Palace Theater. One of the biggest accomplishments of the film - as well as Riefenstahl’s career - is pioneering filmmaking techniques that accentuated the audience’s emotions. Her use of wide and sweeping shots created a scope that accentuated the magnitude of the Nazi regime, that glorified and promoted the Nazi regime that was emerging in Europe. According to film historian and archaeologist Nicholas Reeves in his book The Power of Film Propaganda, “Many of the most enduring images of the [Nazi] regime and its leader derive from Riefenstahl's film.” Cinematography is more than the general placement of the camera. It is the language of creating a visual storyline as presented by the director. The camera is the most essential aspect to cinematography. Without it there can be no picture, and without that there can be no story. Paolo Sorrentino's 2013 film, The Great Beauty uses cinematography to convey emotion not only through sweeping shots but also through moments of dramatic intimacy between his main characters.

Like Riefenstahl, Sorrentino employs visual techniques to evoke emotions toward the characters from the audience. The beauty in The Great Beauty is found within the environment set in Rome, which Sorrentino captures on film. The main character Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is conflicted as to where to find love in his middle-aged life. Towards the beginning of the film, Jep is introduced to the audience as he celebrates his 65th birthday flanked by two conga lines. As we meet Jep, the environment moves in slow motion as the camera inches closer to him, transforming into a headshot of him staring into the camera while the conga lines of people on both sides appear to push Jep to the side. With Jep staring into the camera, the cinematography creates the feeling of an out-of-body experience: Jep ignores reality around him--which slows down to add to a dream-like experience--and gazes longingly at the audience. The out-of-body experience headshot from this point onward becomes a recurring motif and sometimes creates interesting symbolism paired with the editing. For example, later Jep spends evenings with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli). The second evening is intercut with a flashback to one of Jep’s previous lovers. The flashback visualizes Jep on the right and his lover on the left (like the conga line shown earlier). The cutback to the present time appropriates the same out-of-body headshot setup as seen earlier, featuring a lighted lamp in the background on the right side of Jep while the other side remains dark. This suggests a possibility that Jep’s flame has rekindled once again, but nevertheless, he is reminded how it was extinguished in the first place.

Another technique used by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is the use of the 70mm wide lens that captures the essence and beauty of Rome. Despite the greater coverage and resolution it could capture, when it was first created in 1896, it was viewed as a liability compared to the convenience of 35mm. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1970s when 70mm became mainstream with the release of Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars and Apocalypse Now. Part of the reason the wide shots in The Great Beauty are so effective is in tribute to the Italian neorealism cinematography of the 1940s. In the textbook World on Film, author Martha Nochimson cites the 1948 film The Bicycle Thief as an example of neorealism through the cinematography - particularly in the moment where the main character Antonio is moved to steal a bicycle out of desperation in an effort to provide for his family. Nochimson asks, “Why does director Vittorio De Sica, then, shoot it in a long shot: that is, at a distance from which you cannot see the expression on Antonio’s face? One possible way of looking at this choice is to understand that if De Sica has lost the traditional intensity gained from a facial close-up, he has also gained something else: context...Moreover, shot on location, this frame utilizes the real setting to create a poetic effect. The space between Antonio and the bicycle is bifurcated, cut in half, by the pole of a street lamp creating a visual evocation of the crime he now ponders. Antonio will have to cross both a figurative and a physical line (the limits of the law and the street post) to steal the bicycle.” Bigazzi’s cinematography in The Great Beauty similarly uses deep focus around the main characters and mise en scene to convey emotion.

The Great Beauty offers an homage to the cinematography of 1940s Italian neorealism. Part way through the film, Jep and his lady friend Ramona are in the middle of trying on new clothes, preparing themselves for the funeral of their mutual friend, Andre. Jep explains to Ramona that, “A funeral is a high-society event par excellence. You must never forget that. You are appearing on stage.” The sequence is interjected with a backwards dolly shot of Jep sitting on a stone bench, wearing a contrasting yellow sports jacket, waiting to see the next possible dress for Ramona to wear. First, consider the posture of Jep on the bench: he’s slouching and laid-back. Ramona then walks into the frame, her posture are angled slightly, her hand on her hip, appearing to be posing for him. Inspect the area surrounding the two in the scene: it is cold, dissonant, serious, and very expansive. The only thing that is lighting Jep and Ramona are a couple of spotlights hanging over them. The framing of this scene translates a candid amount of information. They are preparing for a funeral, yet Jep’s manner in this scene is cavalier and it is a visual contradiction: he is slouching and wearing a yellow sports jacket as a signifier of his indifference. The camera pulls away from him and his face, distorting the image and distancing the audience from him as much as possible. This conveys that he is not somebody with whom the audience can or should sympathize. This is not unlike the image of Antonio’s face in The Bicycle Thief. While Ramona steps in front of Jep, obstructing the audience's view even further, her hips are leaned to the side as a form of communication. It’s as if she is thinking, “Maybe you should be taking this misfortune more seriously, honey.” Appropriately, the dress that she wears--in contrast to his loud yellow sport coat--is all black, a tradition when attending any funeral or wake. Jep, on the other hand, is less concerned with any thoughts that may arise with this behavior, and ironically suggests that Ramona try on a different dress. The scene finally ends with a cutaway to the funeral, and Jep’s behaviors, mannerisms, and declaration of, “don’t cry at a funeral” become juxtaposed, as he is dressed in black, sitting upright, and developing difficulties suppressing his emotions.

Cinematography is often associated with a filmmaker’s skill in creating visually expansive landscape imagery. In the case of The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino uses cinematography to delve deeper into the emotional lives and contradictions of his characters.