Film Review: The Great Beauty

Many will call this Fellini’s Rome revisited for the 21st century, but Paolo Sorrentino’s visually dazzling tour de force serves more significantly as a sprawling canvas for another stunning performance from Toni Servillo, here starring as

Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino scored spectacularly with the frenetic political biopic Il Divo, which starred his frequent collaborator Toni Servillo. Again, with The Great Beauty, the film is blessed with his participation. Here, he plays Jep, a jaded journalist hotshot questioning his life.

The film will inevitably draw comparisons to Fellini classics like La Dolce Vita, 8 ½ and Roma, but the Fellini halo effect could prove especially advantageous. While fun and entertaining, Sorrentino’s Roman holiday, a long stretch at well over two hours, is a more challenging excursion. Most art-house fans will enjoy the spectacle but, while Sorrentino delivers a flood of gorgeous imagery and pounding soundtrack of mostly Italian pop and disco, he overpopulates the film. Characters in Jep's world mostly sparkle with flash and eccentricities, but are too flighty to care about and, worse, often too numerous to follow (not that they even deserve more attention, which might be Sorrentino’s point).

The Great Beauty
is more anecdotal portrait than pulsating narrative. The film begins with the sudden collapse of a Japanese tourist taking in the sights. His only connection to the film, from which he quickly disappears, is the mortality he symbolizes. But the loud and crowded rooftop blowout party that immediately follows has much to do with the film.

At the heart of the party and at the film’s heart is Jep, the elderly man about town who will take viewers on a sometimes manic, sometimes reflective journey into the contemporary Rome he knows. This is a specific world where the privileged, the coasters and wannabes gossip, laze about and play. As a seasoned culture reporter, Jep is at the center of this very “leisure” class. But he’s also the product of a place long shared culturally and historically with the Catholic Church. So nuns, priests, cardinals and religious school students occasionally cross his path, just as their sanctuaries often distract him.

Early in the film, things change for Jep one woozy morning after his no-holds-barred bash where he and hundreds of his “dearest” friends celebrated his birthday. Now newly arrived at 65 years old, he sinks contemplatively into thoughts about the quality of his life, what he actually loves, and encroaching mortality.

Alone, this habitually nocturnal beast steps into less familiar daylight. Over a few days, he makes stops at various social events (dinners, lunches, salons, clubs, weird art performances, etc.) and schmoozes with a socially minded crowd (artists, aristocrats, business magnates, his dwarf magazine editor).

Fortunately, Jep has some nostalgic romantic memories that soothe (conveyed via flashbacks) and a few close friends, who, like Jep, provide story arcs within this chaotic exploration. They are Romano (Carlo Verdone), a struggling playwright who is the most human in Jep’s crowd, and Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the stripper with whom Jep bonds. She’s the daughter of Egidio (Massimo De Francovich), a strip-club owner who loved drugs and was kind to Jep in the old days.

Among the less savory in the jumbo ensemble are Lello Cava (Carlo Buccirosso), a dull toy magnate with little on his mind; socialites Stefania (Galatea Ranzi) and Viola, who’s more focused on her busy social life than on her troubled son; Cardinal Bellucci (Roberto Herlitzka), a regular on the social circuit and ever ready with an haute cuisine recipe or food tidbit; and Orietta (Isabella Ferrari), a chatterbox who writes junk novels. Amidst so many and so much going on, Jep edges towards a surprising closure to his post-midlife crisis.

A hit in Italy, The Great Beauty is the country’s official entry for a 2014 Foreign Language Oscar nomination and has already received several Italian film awards. Most recently, the film was nominated in four of the main categories (best film, director, screenwriter and actor) for the European Film Awards, to be announced on Dec. 7.