The ghost of Federico Fellini hovers wickedly over The Great Beauty, a fantastic journey around contemporary Rome and a riot of lush imagery juggling past and present, sacred and profane, gorgeous and grotesque.
Opulence is both the movie's style and its subject — but then "wasting things is something that I like [to do]," said director Paolo Sorrentino in a recent interview with Film Comment. Those who like their narratives linear may feel unsettled, though, by the film's jumble of wondrous but seemingly unrelated sights, which veer from beautiful women to gargoyles, from nunneries to orgiastic rooftop parties.
A tourist drops dead; the camera swoops and swerves onto a vanishing giraffe and a flock of flamingos — which may be real, or the fevered imaginative constructs of a man rambling around his adopted city trying to parse both his life and the incoherent mashup of our times. The score likewise veers from propulsive pop to lyrical ancient ballads and choral music.
The movie opens on a rooftop patio, where urbane but jaded journalist Jep Gambardella seems to be enjoying the depraved revelry of his birthday party. Toni Servillo, the actor playing him, dazzled viewers in Sorrentino's 2008 Il Divo as a thinly disguised version of Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, an enormously ambiguous and spectral figure; here the actor's marvelously mobile face, lined and sexy and quizzical, signals a man still curious about the world but weary of a dissolute life he suspects may add up to nothing.
Behind every cynic lurks a disappointed idealist, they say; Jep is in crisis, and not only because he's turning 65 and wondering why he never got around to fulfilling his early literary promise. When news comes that the great love of his early life has died, he roams around his adopted city, grieving the lost innocence of his youth.
He looks with growing unease on the pretentious emptiness of his arty milieu, where any novelty is snapped up as avant-garde, and a little girl who'd rather be playing with friends is packaged as a precocious artist for venting her fury by spattering paint on canvas. Jep sees through his airheaded intimates, but he's grown so adept at skewering them that he fails to notice what a vicious meanie he can be, and how he has crossed the line from skeptic to cynic.
Like Il Divo, The Great Beauty takes the measure of Italy's decline, but without participating in its cynical culture. Jep's trip through the shards of his own memory, and Rome's, may show him a way out of ennui, cruelty and despair.
In that sense his is a sentimental journey — and a bracing one. Stalked by death and disillusion, Jep experiences a kind of rapture at the beauty of things, even — perhaps especially — those things that are "all a trick" of the imagination.
Whether or how Jep's journey alters his fate will be a matter for the viewer's conjecture. His definition of beauty, though, has certainly altered, and it's worth noting that among the women he comes to celebrate in his way are his housekeeper; his editor, a lively blue-haired dwarf; and an ancient, toothless nun who eats nothing but roots. At 142 short minutes, The Great Beauty is nothing short of sublime. (Recommended)