The Great Beauty

I can’t remember when a film last gave me such a surge of pure pleasure—no, outright euphoria—as The Great Beauty. I’ve always been partial to the baroque, crazily exuberant imagination of Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, even when his films are as infuriatingly undisciplined as his last, the self-consciously oddball road movie This Must Be The Place (11).

But The Great Beauty—in Italian, more musically and abstractly titled La grande bellezza—sees Sorrentino ramping up his customary excess and taking it genuinely into the realms of the sublime. The film represents an outrageous, not to say impertinent, gamble: if you call a film The Great Beauty, you’d better be ready to deliver. But Sorrentino does, in spades: it’s a film not just of beauty but also of daring ugliness—which, as we know from Fellini (the inescapable guest of honor at this Trimalchio’s feast of a movie), are inseparable.

At the center of Sorrentino’s sprawling, episodic panorama of life in 21st-century Rome is Jep Gambardella (the marvelous Toni Servillo, working with Sorrentino for the fourth time). He’s a writer who hasn’t produced a new novel for 40 years, letting fiction slip after one major success to become an Eternal City version of Truman Capote—a compulsive party-goer and -thrower, and journalistic documenter of the city’s social and artistic follies (the sort of exalted hack known in France as a chroniqueur). Despite apparently only delivering the odd snippet of magazine journalism, Jep has a fabulous apartment with a patio overlooking the Colosseum, and likes to hold extravagant rooftop parties teeming with go-go dancers, mariachi bands, and crowds of grotesques and beauties, many of them looking not just Italian but über-Italian (this film rivals Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah with its eye for comic-strip physiognomy).

The Great Beauty

Between bashes, Jep takes leisurely, appreciative strolls around the city and occasionally muses, sometimes in voiceover, on his reasons for abandoning novel-writing (short version: too much high life). He recalls his personal Rosebud moment, a youthful visit to an island with his beautiful lost love; forms a doomed liaison with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), an aging stripper of blowsy glamour à la Nancy Dell’Olio; and lolls around making wearily poised conversation with fellow jaded literati.

This is a film of overwhelming visual intensity—yet, incongruously, an extremely wordy one. With a writer as protagonist, you’d expect a certain verbal density, but Sorrentino has often been prone to prolix overload, not least in his recent novel Everybody’s Right, which I found indigestibly relentless. People barely stop talking in The Great Beauty. If you can keep up with Jep’s coolly brutal demolition of a friend—a historian of the Communist Party who nevertheless leads a life of pampered luxury—it’s a marvelous piece of ice-cool invective, delivered with smiling, stiletto contempt by Servillo. Yet it’s the only piece of extended dialogue in Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello’s script that I was really able to concentrate on. But I wonder whether much of the language isn’t mere dressing, and if it isn’t overtly signaled as that. At two separate points, Jep brings out that old chestnut of literary modernism, Flaubert’s ambition to write a novel about nothing. That this occurred twice seemed plain sloppy, before it occurred to me that this is the very point: that Jep is a tired social performer, forever recycling the same hoary repertoire.

Words often seem misplaced or devalued in Jep’s world. His unsuccessful writer friend and comic counterpart Romano (Carlo Verdone, an uncanny ringer for Paul Schrader) pursues his art with earnest passion, forever mounting worthy projects doomed to marginality, such as a theatrical staging of d’Annunzio’s writing. A counterpart to the doomed intellectual Steiner in La Dolce Vita, Romano is honorable, even talented, but out of place in a world even more glamorously hollow than Fellini’s 1960 milieu.

The Great Beauty

While language has become disposable in this image-saturated world, the film celebrates the virtually divine power of the visual and of the sensory realm in general. That power is demonstrated in a gorgeous prelude sequence. On the Janiculum hill offering a magnificent vista of the city, a choir sings in a colonnade, a coach party snaps photos, and a Japanese tourist suddenly drops dead—whether of a routine heart attack or from an overdose of the city’s ineffable beauty.

Then, in an audacious shock cut, a woman screeches right into the camera—and we’re into one of Jep’s parties, set to booming, brassy Euro-techno and teeming with drag queens, models, mariachi musicians, and the occasional worried-looking literary type. And there at the heart of it is the radiantly grinning Jep, making his first appearance with a cigarette priapically clamped in his mouth, with Servillo’s craggy, saggy, weathered features suggesting either regal proprietorial joy or a host’s phony, well-practiced bonhomie.

I won’t describe too much of what follows, because The Great Beauty is so densely packed with image and incident that it’s exhausting to keep up. There are visits to ludicrously chic art events, to a fashion salon, to an audience with a much-prized cosmetic surgeon. There’s a pre-pubescent, tantrum-ridden action painter, a goofy performance art interlude, a mesmerizing glimpse of the wrecked cruise ship Costa Concordia. Throughout, not only does Luca Bigazzi’s photography catch the vibrancy of Rome’s colors by day and night, whether ancient or artificially modern (a vast Martini sign seems as perfect as the classical architecture), but his camera constantly dances, wheeling in elegant Steadicam swerves or swooping forward to catch the occasional passing marvel. Then there are extraordinary extended gliding sequences, such as the breathtakingly sad nocturnal tour of the palazzo of two impoverished old aristocrats—set to Vladimir Martynov’s string quartet “The Beatitudes,” as languorously tender a theme as Delerue’s score for Contempt.

The Great Beauty

Like Jep, who may not produce much but has a writer’s thirst to observe, Sorrentino and Bigazzi are forever on the lookout—for sudden glimpses of beauty, horror, or comedy which may be caught by chance or meticulously, elaborately staged (one assumes the latter, but it’s not always easy to tell). The film’s sweetest, lightest moment is a brief shot of children laughing at a dog on a ridiculously long leash. There’s an almost absurd profligacy in Sorrentino’s inability to resist showing us things, and yet more things: a minor character’s austere modernist mansion, an out-of-the blue knife-throwing routine, a secret tour of Rome’s statues and interiors by night. Sorrentino often creates elaborate setups, then tosses them aside with the raffish casualness of Jep himself. His imagination is the filmic equivalent of David Foster Wallace’s digressive footnotes, with no fleeting idea ever left unexplored. The weirdest example is a sudden inexplicable montage of a man practicing outrageously complex football moves: it’s only after we’ve puzzled over it that we realize he’s an ex-lover of Ramona’s. The only other filmmaker who so compulsively insists on showing you everything is Wes Anderson, but while his conspicuously consumptive insert shots suggest a hyperactive show-off child (“Look what I made!”) Sorrentino carries it off with lightness, as if each discovery were something he’d stumbled on by chance (“Look what I found!”).

It’s impossible to watch The Great Beauty without constantly being aware that it is an appropriation of, or a Berlusconi-era remake of, La Dolce Vita, with Jep the latter-day incarnation of those compromised intellectuals that Marcello Mastroianni played for both Fellini and Antonioni. The film proudly emblazons its debt to Fellini—it has more than its share of fat ladies, and there’s a direct nod to Anna Magnani’s nocturnal cameo as herself in Roma, when Jep suddenly encounters a radiantly smiling Fanny Ardant.

The satires of excess are pure Fellini—notably the quasi-papal “audience” held by the exclusive cosmetic guru who dispenses Botox-like benedictions and threatens to excommunicate lapsed patients (here the film does feel overstated and secondhand). Yet it’s often through his stagings of the grotesque that Sorrentino reaffirms a faith in the sublime. The film’s final chapter centers on Sister Maria (Sonia Gessner), aka “La Santa,” an ancient, wizened, not to say virtually mummified Mother Teresa figure, who remains an absolute ascetic despite the PA dancing attendance on her. In one extraordinary scene, a flock of migrating flamingos stop to rest on Jep’s balcony, and La Santa assures him she knows each one’s Christian name.

The Great Beauty

The scene is so breathtakingly graceful partly because the CGI flamingos are manifestly fake, just like the giraffe that a magician elsewhere causes to vanish, saying “It’s just a trick.” Sorrentino is debunking his own cinematic conjuring but also alerting us to the possibility that Rome itself, in all its sublimity and splendor, may be just a trick—nothing but a vast, magnificent piece of stage décor created by generations of artists, architects, and emperors.

Sorrentino gives us every cue to dismiss The Great Beauty as a glossy folly, a mere de luxe remake, but I find the film infinitely resonant, as inexhaustibly explorable as Rome itself. It’s an audacious experiment in pleasure—a pleasure at once ineffably refined and shamelessly, abrasively vulgar. The Great Beauty will either exhaust you, make you bristle at its outrageous, intemperate presumptuousness, or make you think rapturously, “Now this—for better or worse—is cinema.”