Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Written by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello
This picture is very well-titled. The Great Beauty. It’s an astonishingly opulent and fetching film. But have you ever marvelled at a piece of art, wondered at the craftsmanship on display, and yet find you are unmoved by it? I’d say that’s how I felt by 90% of The Great Beauty. But your mileage for Italy’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar for 2014 may vary.
Sorrentino is clearly a disciple of Federico Fellini. The ambition of The Great Beauty is to be no less than a La Dolce Vita for the 21st Century, a look at Rome’s louche, lascivious and lackadaisical. We meet a group of wealthy Romans at the 65th birthday party of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a famous journalist who in his 20s wrote a beloved novel. He never wrote another, and finds at this time of life he struggles with a bit of an existential crisis. It’s tough being rich and shiftless, with no pursuits other than pleasure and comfort. And not just him—all his friends are out on that ledge, too; aging, wrestling with issues of mortality, of love, and of art, all with the gorgeous and frequently surreal backdrop of Rome behind them. Of course, it doesn’t take long for the Catholic church to play a role. God and sex and cynicism and decadence, served with an enormous ladle.
But The Great Beauty also has a very long, rambling, indulgent script that ventures off in about a dozen directions without finding much emotional resolution. Servillo is a compelling leading man, a plausible playboy even at his age, but as he wanders through neon-lit Rome (he never sees mornings because he’s out all night, drinking and dancing with his friends), the dreamlike world he encounters becomes a banquet of images without much to tie them all together. Decay and extravagance are both fine subjects on which to meditate, and maybe I’m not yet at the right age to really relate to all the feelings of regret and longing that go along with them (something to look forward to!), so while I admired it, I found myself at a bit of a loss. The circus of imagery becomes overwhelming after awhile.