Federico Fellini’s shadow still looms large over Italian cinema. Over 21st-century Italy, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi enjoys a similarly imposing presence. Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty surveys the legacy of both figures, who each typified a kind of existential malaise in their time—Fellini in his most famous film, La Dolce Vita, a sybaritic fantasy of the upper crust with a bitter aftertaste, and Berlusconi in a seventeen year one-man show that flouted conventions of ministerial appropriateness, and that some believe; prioritized self-interest over concern for the country.
Sorrentino distills many of the noxious elements of that cultural inheritance into his portrait of life in present-day Rome, but retains the city’s sumptuousness. An opening scene, accompanied by what seems to be a rehearsal from an all-female choir in one of the city’s many echoing facades, is an almost frenzied onslaught of dramatic camera angles, and concludes with a Japanese tourist collapsing, dead. Many scenes have a similar, intentionally iconic quality. Sorrentino’s style makes for absorbing eye candy, but is full of ambivalence towards the spectacle of it all. These mixed feelings are directed most often towards the Catholic Church, which has its organizational capital in Rome. The sense of a large, working religious institution is established early on through incidental appearances by nuns and members of the clergy. Later, a few of these figures become directly involved in the story, which ultimately concerns itself with questions of mortality and faith.
Our bemused protagonist in this spiritual picaresque is Jep Gambardella, an aging journalist whose one novel (disparagingly called a "novelette" by his colleague/frenemy Stefania) received a modest amount of praise forty years ago. Jep, though still a working journalist, spends most of his time palling around with a certain subset of the Roman elite (creative types, all affluent, and mostly over fifty). Unlike Marcello, the journalist and main figure in La Dolce Vita, Jep doesn’t really seem concerned with celebrities anymore (he’s shown early on interviewing a 2nd-tier performance artist) and is also possessing of a certain past-his-prime softness, though it doesn’t stop him from getting laid regularly.
Played with arch charisma by Toni Servillo, Jep seems to have few real friends and to be largely unconcerned with hanging onto the ones he does have. His female editor (Giovanna Vignola) is his only stable influence, as well as the staunchest defender of his writing. Jep’s worldview encompasses a rotating cast of characters, an uncertain grasp on the past, and perhaps an ebbing sense of self, though that can be seen as more good than bad by the story’s conclusion.
In fact, The Great Beauty is unmistakably marked by impermanence. Disturbed by news of a death shortly after his 65th birthday party, Jep befriends a much younger woman, Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), who works as a stripper in a seedy nightclub. She’s actually not all that young (she’s 42) but is uninitiated to the decadence of Jep’s lifestyle, and he enjoys giving her access. He explains his own rules for navigating the social circle; for one, don’t ever cry at a funeral, lest you upstage the grieving family. Shortly thereafter, at the funeral of another acquaintance, Jep breaks down while Ramona looks on in awe.
Sorrentino’s last film was the critically divisive This Must Be the Place, starring Sean Penn as a retired musician and Robert Smith lookalike. Where that film was full of distancing quirks, this one is all warm, inviting charisma. Much of Sorrentino’s story is ephemeral, and it serves Jep’s character well, concerned as he is with art and the search for beauty. On the other hand, it means that The Great Beauty is sometimes hard to pin down—it simply washes over you in great waves of saturated color, leaving behind certain impressions and sweeping away minor characters one after another. Jep’s time with Ramona is the most potent segment of the film, filled with insight into his self-doubt and struggle with the past, but it doesn’t last long.
In the final segment of Jep’s story, he is charged with interviewing a frail, impossibly old nun, who everyone agrees will be canonized a Saint after her death. Her appearance is at first played for laughs, exposing the clumsiness of her cohorts, but eventually reveals a much deeper significance in several striking sequences. (One lovely moment involves a roosting flock of vividly pink flamingos, almost a psychological inverse of the famous scene in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: the Wrath of God, wherein a raft is eerily overrun by monkeys.) As far as Jep is a stand-in for all of the wild superficiality of Rome, his recognition of something real in this tiny figure, whittled down by age and put on display by the Church, feels like a powerful redemption.
The Great Beauty recently received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. (The film’s self-reflexive reverence for Cinema, which is implicit in everything from Sorrentino’s casting to his meticulously orchestrated party scenes, is catnip to Academy voters—just look at The Artist, or Argo.) But more importantly, Sorrentino has managed to build a loving and distinctive work on the foundation of an indolent, often self-loathing social strata. If you can manage to hang on through its jubilant visual highs and depressive lows, you’ll find that Sorrentino’s vision of Rome contains a great deal of humanity.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writer: Paolo Sorrentino & Umberto Contarello
Starring: Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Verdone, Giovanna Vignola, Carlo Buccirosso, Galatea Ranzi
Release Date: Nov. 15, 2013