Tag Archives: Rome

One’s a movie, the other’s a film: About Time vs. The Great Beauty

16 Sep

Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams in About Time

I went to the cinema twice this weekend. It occurred to me afterwards that both films were about the same thing – love, and loss, and ageing, and how looking back stops you looking forward, or how sometimes not looking back stops you looking forward. The first film was Richard Curtis’s About Time, his “new funny film about love, with a bit of time travel”; the second was Paolo Sorrentino’s Palme d’Or-nominated The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza).

I enjoyed About Time. It was simple (I mean that in a good way) and occasionally moving. The young lead, Domhnall Gleeson (formerly Bill Weasley in Harry Potter), was surprisingly good; Rachel McAdams grinned her way gamely through an underwritten part that called for her to be incessantly endearing (she even gives way to the groom on every detail of wedding planning, which stretches credulity more than the time travel!); and Bill Nighy, as the doting dad, does that bumblingly cool Bill Nighy thing that Bill Nighy always does.

But, when you watch The Great Beauty straight after, you realise quite how shallow, manipulative and manufactured Curtis’s effort is in comparison. About Time is just a movie; The Great Beauty is a film. Unlike in Curtis’s best work, such as Four Weddings and Notting Hill, not a single moment seems real: the embarrassment  of being asked to rub sun-cream on a beautiful girl’s back, and squirting it prematurely all over her; or of blurting out something about blow jobs when your girlfriend’s parents turn up out of the blue – these are all movie moments, unrooted in real life.


Tony Servillo and Sabrina Ferilli in The Great Beauty

Whereas The Great Beauty, caricature of empty Roman high society though it is, is full of understated glimpses of truth. Every character, however parodic, has his or her moment: the Cardinal who is more interested in cooking tips than in spirituality; the ageing woman who looks down at her younger lover, as he swims against the current in their indoor pool, and knows that he is cheating on her; and all the peculiar bit-part players on the stage of the Roman night that the 65-year-old writer protagonist observes as the strolls through the streets in his immaculate suit: the tourists, the drunks, the nuns, the Muslims, the stick-thin dog-walkers and even, bizarrely and briefly, Fanny Ardant as herself.

About Time wraps its message up neatly with a little red bow: who needs time travel, when all of us, in our lives, are travelling through time; the object is to use that time wisely. The Great Beauty, in contrast, defies simple explanation. At times it feels like a thriller, where you are not trying to work out whodunnit, but whydunnit. It’s fragmented, often frustrating, breaking every Save The Cat rule of screenwriting, with no clear plot in sight nor objective for the protagonist. It’s also luminously beautiful and, despite its veneer of cool detachment, almost unbearably moving.  

As a writer, I’m much more Curtis than Sorrentino. I’ve even written my own time travel romance. I too have a tendency to wrap things up for the viewer in a neat little bow.

Watching The Great Beauty is a timely reminder that film can be more than a novel, greater than plot. It can ask some of the great questions in life and, precisely by not answering them, force the viewer to supply their own response.  



Hooray for Bulgaria-wood

24 Nov

Ancient Rome… just outside Sofia, Bulgaria

I’ve spent this week at the new hub of big-budget action movies. It’s not in California. It’s not in London. It’s in… Bulgaria.

Whoever thought, given its ending, that 300 could even have a sequel? But it does, and it has just finished shooting entirely in green-screen on Nu Boyana Studios’ 13 massive sound stages. In October, Robert De Niro and John Travolta squared off here for Killing Season. Before that, Nu Boyana reinforced its floors for the musclebound casts of Expendables 2 and Conan.

And, for the last few months, it has stood in for Ancient Rome. I’ve been on the set of Plebs, an ITV2 sit-com slated for spring 2013, doing interviews with the terrific young cast, and it looks very impressive indeed. Nu Boyana, you see, just happens to have a fantastically detailed recreation of the Eternal City in its backlot, complete with forum, temple, bank, living quarters and Coliseum.

But that’s not all. As you can see from my snaps, it also has a realistic 1940s New York (except for misspelling “Veronika” Lake on the cinema marquee for This Gun For Hire); a war-torn Middle Eastern town; and some crashed fighter planes on a back lot. With Santa Claus painted on their fuselage. If someone can tell me why, please do.

The studios were built by the Soviets in 1962, inspired apparently by a trip to MGM, in order to churn out propaganda films.  They have been in private ownership since 2005, and a heavy programme of investment is underway. The crew are hard-working, efficient and wildly experienced (they also specialise in Blowing S*** Up), and everything here seems to be half UK prices or less. Pinewood had better look to its laurels.