Much has already been said about director Paolo Sorrentino’s similarities to Federico Fellini. While it’s true that one may find comparisons with Fellini’s films, specifically La Dolce Vita, The Great Beauty is a work of art painted on its own wondrous canvas, the comparisons merely complementing the spectacle that Sorrentino delivers.
The film opens with a quote from CÃ©line’s Journey to the End of the Night: “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” Then, in a picturesque Rome, we witness a tourist collapse. A choir sings. Suddenly, we are thrust into a Eurotrash party; an extended sequence of writhing bodies and club beats. In this age of cinema, The Great Beauty is a rare beast, grabbing you firmly with artistic hands before you even know it.
The party is in celebration of Jep Gambardella’s 65th birthday. Jep is a respected journalist, who has never been able to top the acclaim that his only novel brought him in his twenties. He is a playboy of sorts, who embraces the eccentric lifestyle of excess and superficial elegance. After Jep hears of a past lover’s death, he embarks on a journey to find the ever-fleeting “beauty” that he is missing, the meaning of life if you will. Jep traverses Rome, conversing with all sorts of eccentric characters and remembering key events from his past, all the while conveying a charming cynicism that speaks equally about his beloved city as it does himself.
The “plot” itself arguably takes a backseat in Sorrentino’s opus. The Great Beauty is a film throbbing with depth and beauty. Love, beauty (both physical and spiritual), religion, materialism, commercialism and vanity, these are but some of the topics analyzed in a film chockablock with metaphors and ruminations. You’ll be enraptured as a nude woman runs head-first into a wall in the name of “art”, a young girl emotionally paints as adults look on, a 103-year-old nun says her first words in a group discussion. Moments are truly bizarre and surreal, but they are always important and layered.
Sorrentino-regular Toni Servillo delivers a truly wonderful performance here. He perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Sorrentino’s musings by bringing a man who is as seemingly confident as he is frustrated by his own inadequacies. “I didn’t just want to live the high life,” Jep says at one point. “I wanted to become its king.” He is a man imprisoned by his own selfish wants, looking for an escape that he envisions as meaning. A great performance that brings depth and comedic touches in equal measure.
Ultimately, The Great BeautyÂ can be seen as a film about Rome. A movie that, not unlike Fellini’s La Dolce Vida, worksÂ as a study of the great Italian capital, a city known for its cultural and artistic significance, which Sorrentino analyzes with a tangible sense of love and hate.
These are but the interpretations of one viewer, who was downright captivated from the first moments. Others may find their own interpretations, culminating in different experiences. What is certain is the care and attention to detail that has gone into every sequence and every poetic moment of dialogue. A funny, haunting, sad, sumptuous and enlightening experience that serves as a breath of fresh air into the symbolic lungs of cinema.