Better late than never to see this sensual, sometimes surreal but unapologetically self-aware and deeply melancholy film The Great Beauty, from Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino.
Sixty-five year-old Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a one-hit wonder, having written a prize-winning novel as a young man in his twenties, but nothing since.
Content to rest on his laurels as a journalist renowned for doing high-profile interviews, he has remained on the A-list of Rome’s partying glitterati and is still regarded as a shining light among the city’s intelligentsia.
Jep, however, is world-weary, a cynical if unoffended observer of the indulgences and pretentions of Rome’s elite – his velvet-gloved demolition of a performance artist’s posturing is ruthless.
The movie’s obvious connection is with Federico Fellini’s revered La Dolce Vita (1960) – there are also echoes of Roma (1972) – but if we are to see Jep as the senior version of Marcello Mastroianni’s character then we must also understand that maturity has produced in him a jaded introspection that inevitably dilutes life’s current sweetness while it casts an ethereal light on memory’s stored treasures.
Told one night of a woman’s death, Jep suddenly becomes aware of his own mortality and seems to understand more acutely aware that all the world is, after all, a stage – his ‘performance’ at a funeral exemplifies the truism. Death, in fact, is the constant prowler, evident in the ancient masonry that is a backdrop to the frenzied nightlife and drugged erotica of those who would forever keep it at bay.
Guiding us like Dante’s Virgil through a cocaine-and-cocktails inferno, Servillo is remarkable at being simultaneously inside and outside the story, watching it with us.
Set in the Eternal City of stone and marble, of fountains and statuary, of religious piety and shameless hedonism, Sorrentino has created a great beauty. It is visually stunning – the flamingoes on the balcony are extraordinary – languidly paced and inspiring in its ambition, and the closing shot, as the camera floats slowly down the Tiber towards the Castel Sant’Angelo, is a dream.
I was sorry when it ended.
~ John Campbell