Throughout Paolo Sorrentino’s exuberant and strange film The Great Beauty, a 65-year-old writer whose only hit novel was published 40 years prior struggles with his own reputation and mortality, as well as that of his beloved Rome, Italy. According to Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) and his jaded circle of friends, Rome is over and done – finito. As one of his friends says, the only decent people left in Rome are the tourists.
And yet they live there still, many in beautiful palazzos that look like museums inside and out and have, in Jep’s case, a stunning view of the Roman Coliseum. For all their whining and carping, though, one senses that a move to anywhere else would destroy them. Their angst is more existential than real, coming from boredom rather than anything tangible. That Jep is the least discontent is his - and the movie's - saving grace.
The film opens on a group of Asian sightseers, one of whom wanders a few yards from the group to snap a photo and keels over dead. Someone lets loose a scream which bleeds into another one coming from the lungs of an inebriated guest at Jep’s raucous sixty-fifth birthday party. For ten solid minutes, the party rages in a propulsive swell of undulating bodies and deep house music, with the guests drinking to remember and to forget. But for Jep, the milestone has stirred within him untouched emotions and deeply felt questions about what he's accomplished and what he may yet achieve.
Jep thinks about writing another novel but mainly rests on his laurels save for free-lance work profiling contemporary artists for a magazine. Evenings are spent dining and drinking with friends who consider their opinions about Ethiopian jazz and Marxism the center of the universe. Turning 65 has given Jep the permission to hold nothing back and he relishes the chance to jab at if not puncture his pals' pretensions, yet they hold him in such esteem, they always come back for more.
Sorrentino's movie is as picturesque as Rome itself, finding all the Great Beauty in the city's polished antiquity. He has a winning flair for capturing peculiar faces, situations, and themes in a way that would do Fellini proud: Jep's meticulously coiffed dwarf editor; a visit to a Botox center that runs like a fast food drive-through; the recurring appearance of nuns and strippers. Still, at its core, the film asks viewers to think about what they think about when they think about lives artfully well-lived.
The Great Beauty | Dir. Paolo Sorrentino | 142 minutes | Playing at Tivoli Cinemas in Westport