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The Great Beauty: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual-Format Edition Review

The Great Beauty (La grand bellezza) (2013) movie poster The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)

US Theatrical Release: November 15, 2013 / Running Time: 141 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Paolo Sorrentino / Writers: Paolo Sorrentino (screenplay & scenario), Umberto Contarello (screenplay)

Cast: Toni Servillo (Jep Gambardella), Carlo Verdone (Romano), Sabrina Ferilli (Ramona), Carlo Buccirosso (Lello Cava), Iaia Forte (Trumeau), Pamela Villoresi (Viola), Galatea Ranzi (Stefania), Franco Graziosi (Count Colonna), Giorgio Pasotti (Stefano), Massimo Popolizio (Alfio Bracco), Sonia Gessner (Countess Colonna), Anna Della Rosa (Lifeless Girl), Luca Marinelli (Andrea), Serena Grandi (Lorena), Ivan Franek (Ron Sweet), Vernon Dobtcheff (Arturo), Dario Cantarelli (Saint's Assistant), Lillo Petrolo (Lillo De Gregorio), Luciano Virgilio (Alfredo), Aldo Ralli (Cardinal), Giusi Merli (Saint), Giovanna Vignola (Dadina), Anita Kravos (Talia Concept), Ludovico Caldarera (Padre Basilicata), Marialura Rondanini (Madre Basilicata), Francesca Golia (Botox Nun), Silvia Munguia (Ahθ), Massimo De Francovich (Egidio), Roberto Herlitzka (Cardinal Bellucci), Isabellla Ferrari (Orietta), Fanny Ardant (Herself), Antonello Venditt (Himself)
The Great Beauty is one of DVDizzy.com's Top 100 Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).The Great Beauty ranks 60th in our list of the Top 100 Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).

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Tsotsi. In a Better World. The Barbarian Invasions. Most winners of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film don't stay in the public consciousness very long.
But for one night, with 43 million people watching, they are proclaimed the best film the entire non-English speaking world had to offer that year. It is perhaps the highest honor a foreign language production can achieve and it immediately raises the profile and stature of the chosen film.

Early this month, The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) won the Oscar in question, keeping Italy in the global lead by becoming the nation's eleventh film to win since a competitive category was established in 1956.

Personally, I find the Foreign Language category a helpful guide to make sense of the vast, overwhelming world of cinema produced outside of North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Various countries throughout the world each submit one film to represent their culture. Right before Christmas, from last year's 76 submissions, the Academy released its shortlist of nine, which it later whittled down to the usual field of five nominees.

The year's most buzzed-about foreign film -- France's Blue Is the Warmest Color -- was ineligible because distributors refused to move up its local release date nine days to meet a deadline. In awards with fewer eligibility rules, like the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, Blue and Beauty went head to head, with Beauty emerging victorious. Its subsequent win -- over Denmark's The Hunt, Cambodia's The Missing Picture, Palestine's Omar, and Belgium's The Broken Circle Breakdown -- was therefore one of 23 non-surprises that sucked some of the fun and most of the mystery out of Oscar night. Nonetheless, from the three nominees and three additional submissions I've seen, Great Beauty seems like a worthy winner.

Most of the times that I see a Foreign Language winner or contender, I enter with ignorance, knowing little about the producing nation's film industry and the filmmakers' bodies of work. In this case, I've seen a modest number of Italian films over the years. I was more surprised to discover that I had not only seen but reviewed writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's previous film. This Must Be the Place, an English language drama starring Sean Penn as a glam rock star turned Nazi hunter, floundered in limited US release in the fall 2012. I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. Still, returning to his native tongue, Sorrentino kicks things up to a new level with Great Beauty, a work of art befitting its title.

In "The Great Beauty", Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has a spectacular view of the Coliseum from the patio outside his home.

We slowly come to understand that the film opens at what is the glitzy 65th birthday of protagonist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). Geriatrics, middle-aged folk, and young people, many of them celebrities or aspiring, are seen living it up to loud contemporary dance music. Jep himself seems somewhat unmoved by the event and with high society, a class he explains in narration he has belonged to for the nearly 40 years since he came to Rome at age 26. Jep wrote an acclaimed short novel back then, but never a second book, instead working as a newspaper journalist who specializes in interviews and reporting on art.

Jep has seen and done a lot in his decades on the job. The socialite life of free-flowing alcohol and going to sleep at dawn has undoubtedly contributed to his status as a self-defined misanthrope, who's hard to impress but fairly easygoing.

The Great Beauty surrounds Jep with a wealth of characters and scenarios that might seem minor or unrelated, but which flesh out the world of this lead and add up to something bigger. Among the subjects reported on are a blindfolded performance artist who head-butts a stone aqueduct in the nude, a pre-teen girl who per her parent's demands throws a tantrum with paint cans on canvas to much admiration and attention, and a man who has had his picture taken every day of his life. Jep's colleagues include his editor, a dwarf lady who parties with the best of them but is professional on the job; his agent, who's dating a young ex-actress who shows him no affection whatsoever; and an idealistic middle-aged writer now working in television whom Jep dresses down in an arresting monologue.

Two very different women garner a little more attention than these characters. After reconnecting with an old friend he hasn't seen in 30 years, Jep begins seeing the friend's daughter Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a 42-year-old who fashions herself a sophisticated stripper and has no explanation for spending everything she makes. Theirs is an interesting near-romance which ends abruptly and rather shockingly. The film's final act sees Jep on a big assignment, in which he is supposed to get to conduct only the third ever interview with Sister Maria (Giusi Merli), a 103-year-old missionary from Africa widely revered as "The Saint."

Jep (Toni Servillo) cuts a proud colleague down to size with a cold-blooded reality check. "Sophisticated stripper" Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) befriends Jep, her father's old friend.

While it may sound episodic and meandering, there is purpose and meaning to Jep's sad, strange journey. Since turning 65, thoughts of ambition, mortality, aging, and love are firmly on the old man's mind.
There is talk of past partners and Jep is blindsided by a mourning widower's revelation that his wife's journal described Jep, her adolescent beau, as her only love. "What's wrong with being nostalgic?", Jep's agent asks at a speaking engagement he regrets before deciding to leave Rome and return home after forty years.

The film is decidedly European in its design, being full of casual nudity and contemplation. Poetic and poignant in ways you don't even understand, it moves you with its imagery, from a sea on Jep's ceiling to a secret world of ancient art that Jep and Ramona are privy to, through a friend to princesses with lots of keys. There's choral singing, Jep's across-the-street view of the Coliseum, a Botox clinic that serves clients as quickly as a fast food joint, an old magician who intends to make a giraffe disappear, and a Cardinal rumored to be Europe's top exorcist who can't stop talking about dishes he prepares.

It's untidy, it's unusual, and it may leave many viewers, especially those unversed in foreign cinema, wondering what they just watched. But it's also beautiful, resonant and profound, waxing on the human condition gracefully without playing like navel-gazing. Though it runs 141 minutes with credits, it's a fast viewing, and the rare one I never needed to check the time remaining. The film doesn't conveniently fit into any mold. It's funny, sad, whimsical, and dead serious, sometimes all at the same time. That it could win the Foreign Language Film Oscar with no social relevance, historical basis, or recent precedent speaks to the distinctness of this original vision and emotionally fulfilling experience.

Sister Maria (Giusi Merli), a centenarian nun widely revered as "The Saint", climbs sacred stairs on her hands and knees in "The Great Beauty."

I'm surprised that the film didn't get recognized in technical categories too, since from the opening frame to the appealing end titles, it offers striking sound design and cinematography. (I'm pleased that it did receive a cinematography nomination from the Online Film Critics Society, an organization to which I belong, though it missed out in our Best Film Not in the English Language category.) For whatever reason, the haunting score was ineligible, presumably because it's not original.

Even before the Academy Award nominations were announced, The Great Beauty was assured of some lasting prestige, the kind that comes from inclusion in The Criterion Collection. That beloved institution of important classic and contemporary films assigns spine number 702 to a Dual-Format Edition consisting of 1 Blu-ray and 2 DVDs and a lower-priced two-disc DVD-only set. We review the former here.

The Great Beauty: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format Edition cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.35:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (Italian); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (Italian)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: March 25, 2014
Three single-sided discs (1 BD-50, 1 DVD-9, and 1 DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available as standalone 2-Disc DVD ($24.95 SRP) on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Picture and sound are critical to The Great Beauty's impact and Criterion ensures both are as splendid as they should be. The 2.35:1 visuals are highly filmic. Accordingly they display a warmth and majesty that seems to be disappearing as cinema goes digital. They also feature some light grain. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is attention-grabbing with music from serene choir song to bold dance-pop tunes to a terrific score. The mix is defined by peaks and valleys; you may find yourself reaching for the remote to lower or raise the volume as needed. Both senses are treated to 1080p at its most powerful, which is no surprise given what Criterion does for the older films they typically distribute.

Italian film scholar Antonio Monda interviews writer-director Paolo Sorrentino twelve years after their first meeting. With a cigar in his hand and some videocassettes behind him, Toni Servillo talks about being four times a Sorrentino leading man.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Criterion provides a hearty slate of bonus features, all of them in Italian with optional player-generated English subtitles and all of them in HD on Blu-ray.

We begin with "Paolo Sorrentino in conversation with Antonio Monda" (37:59), an October 2013 chat between the director and a film scholar you may recognize from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou's Criterion DVD. The two paisanos recall the amusing circumstances of their meeting around the first Tribeca Film Festival in 2002 and proceed to discuss recurring themes in Sorrentino's work until spending the bulk of the piece on The Great Beauty. They compare the film to Fellini's La Dolce Vita and address the depictions of tabloids, religion, and politics, while Sorrentino opens up about his collaborators, the film's reception in Italy, and the inspirations for characters.

"Toni Servillo on The Great Beauty" (12:35) interviews the film's leading man. He discusses his relationship with the director, for whom he has made four films, and the character and style of Jep Gambardella.

Next, we hear from Umberto Contarello (11:44), Sorrentino's co-writer on this and This Must Be the Place. He describes their collaborative process, reflects further on Jep Gambardella, and acknowledges the inevitable influence of Fellini.

This old film director features in both of the Blu-ray's deleted scenes. The Blu-ray's main menu montage pulls heavily from the striking end titles footage.

Deleted scenes are rare for Criterion, but this one is joined by two items,

both of which are oddly designed to promote the film's May 2013 Italian theatrical release. There is a scene in which Jep interviews an aging film director (2:45) who describes his next project about a girl whose eyes change color. The same director features prominently in a montage (2:15) comprised of cut snippets.

The on-disc extras conclude with The Great Beauty's theatrical trailer (2:08).

As always, all of the Blu-ray's bonuses also make it to DVD. In this case, the trailer is placed on Disc 1, while everything else nearly fills the light second DVD to single-layered capacity.

The Blu-ray's top menu and DVD's main menu play choral music over screen-filling scenes from the film before settling on a silent freeze frame. It probably goes without saying by now, but this Blu-ray, like all other Criterion ones I've encountered, both lets you resume playback of everything and lets you set bookmarks on the film.

The three uniquely-labeled discs share a Digipak that slides into a box (when removed, its inside displays an eerie eye). Loose inside the Digipak is an extensively illustrated 28-page booklet. Besides the usual film, transfer and disc information, it features "Dancing in Place", an essay from film critic and author Phillip Lopate that analyzes the film in a thoughtful, learned manner.

Another night of partying behind him, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) uses a fountain to get water.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Great Beauty is extremely different from American cinema, which helps it stand out for those who watch a lot of movies. But unconventionality alone does not distinguish this episodic Oscar winner. Thoughtfulness on the human condition, an abundance of compelling ideas and characters, and artistic expression of the highest order work together to make this a rare and rewarding experience.

Criterion's Blu-ray combo is everything you expect it to be. It complements a dynamite feature presentation with a solid hour of extras. The film would warrant recommendation on its own and would appear likely to provoke repeat viewings, but this release elevates it to a higher plane.

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Related Reviews:
2013 Oscar Winners: The Great Gatsby • Gravity • 20 Feet from Stardom • Frozen • Dallas Buyers Club • Blue Jasmine
Best Foreign Language Film Oscar Winners: Amour • In a Better World • The Counterfeiters • Tsotsi • Babette's Feast
New: The Wolf of Wall Street • George Washington • American Hustle • Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom • Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino: This Must Be the Place | Direct to Criterion: Frances Ha • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Foreign Films: Wadjda • Garibaldi's Lovers • Les Intouchables • Wild Strawberries • I Clowns • The Grandmaster
Nine • The Tree of Life • To Rome with Love • And While We Were Here

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Reviewed March 25, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2013 Janus Films, Pathι, Indigo Film, Medusa Film, Babe Films, France 2 Cinema, Banca Popolare di Vicenza
and 2014 The Criterion Collection. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.