Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino.
Written by: Paolo Sorrentino & Umberto Contarello.
Starring: Toni Servillo (Jep Gambardella), Carlo Verdone (Romano), Sabrina Ferilli (Ramona), Carlo Buccirosso (Lello Cava), Iaia Forte (Trumeau), Pamela Villoresi (Viola), Galatea Ranzi (Stefania), Franco Graziosi (Conte Colonna), Giorgio Pasotti (Stefano), Massimo Popolizio (Alfio Bracco), Sonia Gessner (Contessa Colonna), Luca Marinelli (Andrea), Serena Grandi (Lorena).
It takes guts for an Italian filmmaker to make a film like The Great Beauty, which makes it clear that the film is directly inspired by Federico Fellini – arguably the greatest Italian director in history. But Paolo Sorrentino is a director who has never lacked courage. His 2008 film, Il Divo, won a prize the Cannes Film Festival, and is about Italian politician Giulio Andreotti – who was the Prime Minister 7 times in his career. The film documented his multiple rises and falls, and his ties to the Mafia. To follow up that acclaimed film, Sorrentino made his English language debut, which the unfairly maligned This Must Be the Place, with Sean Penn as a Robert Smith-like aging rock star, who goes on a cross country American road trip to find the Nazi war criminal who tormented his father. With The Great Beauty, Sorrentino is now making his modern day version of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – with his favorite star Toni Servillo in the role of a 65 year old wealthy “writer”, whose life is really just one long party. Many recent Italian films are about the dire political and economic situation that the country is now in, but in The Great Beauty they are conspicuous in their absence. That may well be the point, as the wealthy people in this film fiddle their thumbs as Rome burns.
Like Marcello Mastroianni’s Marcello Rubini in Fellini’s masterpiece, Servillo’s Jep Gambardella is a journalist living in Rome, where his life basically consists of one long party. There was some degree of hope for Rubini in Fellini’s film – he was a man in his mid-30s, who had finally realized the emptiness of his existence at the end of the movie, and may decide to turn his life around. There isn’t so much hope for Jep – the movie opens at his 65th birthday celebration, which he smokes, drinks and dances his way through without a care in the world. Decades ago, he published a celebrated novel, but he never wrote fiction again, and now works as a journalist – although we never really see him (or anyone) do any work at all. He has achieved what he set to do when he arrived in Rome – as he tells us in voiceover, he didn’t just want to attend parties his whole life, he wanted to be the deciding factor in whether parties were considered a success or failure, merely by their ability to get him to show up. Jep loves everyone, and everyone loves Jep – which is essentially the same thing as saying Jep loves nobody, and nobody loves Jep. He knows everyone, but doesn’t really know anyone. His life is always about the next party, the next drink, the next cigarette, the next beautiful woman that he’ll bed and then forget about. The rich people he hangs out with talk all the time, but end up saying next to nothing. Jep seems like such a nice guy, but he has no problem being cruel if he feels like it.
The movie’s inciting incident is the death of one of Jep’s former lovers. He hadn’t been with her in decades – since the late 1960s, before he even moved to Rome, but her death ways on him heavily. He starts looking at his life in a way he hasn’t in years, and doesn’t really like what he sees. Death hangs over the whole film – there are a few throughout the movie, which for the most part Jep is able to brush off (watch as he explains how to make yourself the center of attention at a funeral, while still seeming like the good guy) – but as they start to pile up, he sinks a little lower. Tourists are all around in Rome, and while Jep starts off hating them (as a resident of any city that has a lot of tourists do), but ends up envying them – they may only be in Rome for a short time, but when they’re there, they see Rome. To him all the beauty and the history of Rome is nothing but background noise – rendered meaningless by familiarity.
The film is never less than beautiful to look at. There is no question that Sorrentino certainly studied Fellini, and he and his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, have made a dazzling visual experience, with a constantly swooping camera that revels in the excess Jep has taken for granted.
In a strange way, The Great Beauty reminded me of another film from this year – Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, which is also about a rich man, constant parties, and empty existence. Sorrentino’s film is not as bombastic as Luhrmann, but it is almost as tiring. The film is nearly two and half hours long, it’s is more of a series of vignettes than longer story. Sorrentino makes his point fairly early in the proceedings, and then repeats it throughout the film. The film is by no means bad – it is visually dazzling, and Servillo is very good in the lead role – but few of the other characters barely leave a mark on the film as it progresses, and after a while all the empty excess on screen goes beyond making Sorrentino’s point, and just seems like too much empty excess. But perhaps like Jep’s life itself, the film feels like too much of a good thing. Perhaps that’s the point – but the movie still wears out its welcome long before the end credits.