Grandly glamourous, lushly scored, and luxuriously cinematic, The Great Beauty is a memory play, a meditation on existence, a celebration of the incidentals that make it joyous. It flits between vignettes of extravagance and eccentricity and glides like reverie, probing the emptiness that can result from living a full life.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), “the king of socialites,” is a 65-year-old celebrity journalist, a veteran fashion plate and ladykiller, who wrote an ambitious first novel 40 years ago and has since spent his evenings at nightclubs, art galleries, theaters, readings, and parties. We meet him at a hedonistic rooftop party, and join him on a fantastic, ironic, and decadent journey around the city of the Coliseum.
Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino (Cannes’ Jury Prize winner Il Divo) delivers a bath of startling and serene and sexy images, building a doting and distinctive work on the foundation of an indolent, self-loathing social strata and one character’s unrealized, unspecified yearning. Sorrentino’s vision is the size of Rome itself, and he stuffs – engorges – his film’s 140 minutes with a riot of outrageous and gloriously visual anecdotes. It’s an overload of sensual riches and a cornucopia of dazzling compositions, like a nine-course dessert that makes you forget the meal.
The ghost of Federico Fellini hovers wickedly over The Great Beauty. Its ravishing portrait of listless luxuriance evokes him by way of Baz Luhrmann, and every frame is a tribute to his early 1960s classics. While reminiscent of La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, it’s a more debauched phantasmagoria, washing over you in series of scenes, visages, sensations, and impressions; a travelogue through memory and dreams, in which life is greatest fiction we could ever create. Never have cynicism and disillusion seemed more intoxicating.
The Great Beauty is a maximalist’s delight, a shimmering coup de cinema to make your heart burst, your head swim, and your soul roar. Its tumultuous visual banquet, its unpredictable sense of switchblade satire, and its fools’ parade of modern grotesques coalesce into a river of melancholy that swells exponentially, turning from a wary trickle to a flash flood. An exhaustive photo exhibition stretched out over decades and an exercise in which an indignant young girl splashes buckets of paint on a canvas to create a multimillion-dollar art piece: these are displays of Sorrentino’s great artistic passion.
For all its pleasures, the film finds depth, clarity, and refreshment in even the shallowest of pools. Sorrentino juggles past and present, sacred and profane, asceticism and opulence, life and death. The sheer exuberance and gaudy frivolity may be enticing, but The Great Beauty, with references to Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky, is more: a sumptuous elegy that balances pungent satire and moodiness as it depicts the dissolute world of the upper crust in contemporary Rome.
An ancient Catholic nun who, at 103 years old, volunteers 22 hours a day, subsists on 40 grams of plant roots, and arduously climbs the steps to St. John’s Church on her bare knees, asks Jep why he never wrote a second book. “I was looking for the great beauty,” he tells her, “and I never found it.” Like most of us, he was looking in the wrong place. The great beauty is everywhere. It may lie in the past – under the bathed glow of a lighthouse and the flushed face of a seraphic first love – or around the corner, in the pages of the next novel. After all, it’s just a trick.