Sixty-five year old Jep Gambardella takes stock of his party lifestyle after his recent birthday.
I feel like it’s hard to describe why I liked this film so much without at first taking a look at some of the extremely poetic dialogue that Paolo Sorrentino uses throughout the film. So, in lieu of going into the plot too much, because honestly, there isn’t much of a conventional plot, I’d like to look at one scene of dialogue.
There’s a scene a little less than halfway through this film, where our protagonist, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, “Gomorrah”), is sitting on a roof at a party, smoking cigarettes and sipping wine while discussing nothing in particular with the guests. One of the women there more or less attacks Jep’s lifestyle, saying he’s lazy and if he would’ve worked more he could’ve been a better man. She compares herself to him, saying that while he only wrote one novelette, she wrote eleven novels and a history book. She believes she’s done something important with her life while Jep has squandered his life enjoying parties and woman. Jep smiles knowingly, and then in a very soft-spoken manner he replies:
“What great conviction! Should I envy you or be repelled? You know, all this boastful talk, all this serious ostentatiousness, all this ego… These harsh damning judgments of yours hide certain fragility, a feeling of inadequacy and above all a series of untruths. We care about you; we know you. We also know our untruths and for this, unlike you, we end up talking about nonsense, about trivial matters, because we don’t want to revel in our pettiness… (Here he dissects why the woman has been speaking untruths, but context is needed for full appreciation. He digresses, and comes back to his original topic.)…You’re fifty-three, with a life in tatters, like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little… Don’t you agree?”
Much of the film could be boiled down to this little exchange in dialogue, because the film itself does not have a ton of plot. The film is about Jep, as he takes stock of life right after his sixty-fifth birthday. It’s a quiet film, but it’s very profound, and as the title suggests, it’s quite beautiful.
I first stumbled upon the work of Sorrentino with his 2015 film, “Youth”, starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, and I loved that movie too (though it’s not as good as this). The Young Pope, the HBO miniseries starting Jude Law, was just as beautiful as that, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to see this movie. Sorrentino is incredibly pretentious as a director, so if you don’t like that in your movies, you can probably just skip right over his oeuvre. There are lots of long scenes where the only thing happening is conversations about art, culture, what it means to be alive. I love that kind of thing, but I know lots of people find artists talking about their art a little onanistic. I find Sorrentino’s art transcends that pretentiousness, because it actually has a lot to say, and his voice is very unique. He merges modern life in Rome with old history and is able to talk about life as a whole while doing so. He seems to be in love with his city, too, because in all of his work I’ve seen absolutely gorgeous shots of Rome. This movie is honestly worth watching for the cinematography and scenery alone.
Toni Servillo is fantastic as Jep. He balances his own pretentiousness with the insecurities he feels about his own work, his life, and how he thinks he is being perceived. He’s an extremely likeable character, and it’s easy to believe that he is a centerpiece at the parties he goes to. Some of the other characters in this film do a wonderful job too; particularly Sabrina Ferilli who plays Ramona, an aging stripper with whom Jep forms a friendship. There is a great fragileness in Ramona, one in which Jep sees a lot of himself, and this leads to a number of great scenes about the nature of true beauty vs manufactured beauty.
My biggest issue with this film is it’s pacing. I personally, have no problem with slow moving movie, but for those who aren’t used to art films, this movie may be a bit grueling. As I said above, not much happens more than Jep taking stock of his life, and this film encroaches on two and a half hours.The beginning is a great example of this, because really nothing happens until almost fifteen minutes into the film, but for me everything was still interesting. The long shots, the spaces of silence, the time spent watching people dance at a party, all of it is setting up the world in which Jep is king. The fakeness of his world, but also the sudden glimpses of realness make this film feel like a warmly remembered summer vacation that, through the filter of memory, has become almost surreal. It's a look back on life with all it's great loves and sadnesses.
What I like most about Jep and this movie is that they doesn’t claim to have any answers, instead, they simply paints a picture of what life is, and how beautiful life can be underneath all the noise, all the “blah, blah, blah...” This movie is pretentious, yes, but it’s easy to enjoy because of the poetic dialogue, the gorgeous cinematography, and the charisma of our lead actor. This movie won Best Foreign Language Film in 2013, and it’s easy to see why.
End Note: I've seen a lot of comparisons between this movie and Fellini's “La Dolce Vita”. I know I say this frequently, but expect a review of that movie in the coming weeks.
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