As The Great Beauty (La grande belleza) begins, its protagonist Gep Gambardella is celebrating his 65th birthday in a feverishly hedonistic party. Gep authored a successful novel in his twenties, which has since allowed him the indulgent life of a celebrity journalist, bobbing from party to party among Rome’s shallow rich. Gep is having a helluva time, but now he reflects on the emptiness of his milieu and the superficial accomplishments of his past 40 years. As he alternates introspection and indulgence, we follow him through a series of strikingly beautiful Roman settings. (And, because Gep parties all night, we see lots of gorgeously still Roman dawns.)
The Great Beauty is foremost an extraordinarily beautiful art film. If you’ve been to Rome, you know that it is a generally chaotic city with unexpected islands of solitude. The Great Beauty captures this aspect of the Eternal City better than any other film I’ve seen. On one level, The Great Beauty is very successful Rome porn.
Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino also explores the moral vacuity of the very rich and the party life. It’s the Italy of Silvio Berlusconi, whom Sorrentino blames for enabling a national culture of escapism. These themes, along with the main character and the movie’s structure are of course nearly identical to Fellini’s great La Dolce Vita (1960), but The Great Beauty is more accessible, funnier and a bit more hopeful – and much more of a showcase for the cityscape of Rome. Sorrentino provides plenty of laughs, especially with a gourmet-obsessed cardinal and a cadaverous celebrity nun with a Mephistopheles-looking handler.
It’s hard to imagine an actor better suited to play Gep than Toni Servillo. Servillo perfectly captures both the happiness Gep takes in carnal pleasure and his self-criticism for giving his entire life to it. Servillo’s Gep is brazenly proud of his own cynicism, until we see his humanity breaking through at a funeral. Servillo is even magnificent in wearing Gep’s impressive collection of sports jackets.
There’s so much to The Great Beauty – stunning imagery, introspection, social criticism, sexual decadence, fine performances, humor and a Rome travelogue – each by itself worth a visit to the theater. The Great Beauty, which will be one of the favorites for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, may not be in theaters for very long – catch it while you can.