The Great Beauty is a luscious two plus hour feast of earthly delights. One is treated to a cornucopia of visual amuse bouche. The camera work is as dizzying as champagne and the louche decadence against the sublime backdrop of Rome makes for a heady experience. Think Fellini’s LaDolce Vita in color, with a touch of Bertolucci for visuals and a storyline like Proust’s Remembrance of Times Past. It does meander. But what a magnificently beautiful walk.
After an enigmatic and stately opening scene panning over Rome and circling in on a piazza populated by tourists, with a chorus of women singing very madrigal-like melodies from a balcony, a Japanese man inexplicably faints after taking a photograph, cut to another outdoor scene seething with all manner of tarted-up glitzy humanity dancing to a throbbing disco beat like their lives depended on it. The camera plunges into the depths of a scene of frenzied, high octane partying. They are the perfect crowd of upscale Eurotrash - the beautiful, the bad, and the seriously botoxed. They are presided over by the preening, self-satisfied, sybarite Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo), whose sixty fifth birthday is being extravagantly and surreally celebrated.
We have entered his world and see it through his eyes. Jep is a debonair boulevardier with slicked-back beautifully greying hair which curls at the nape, a soigne wardrobe and a languorous walk which has the grace of Fred Astaire. He is reflecting on his life from the time he arrived in Rome as a young man with a mission. He intended to take on Rome and make it his own - including the ability to destroy a party simply by not showing up. It would appear that on this point he has been a complete success. His first book made him a celebrity and gained him access to the rich, powerful and gorgeous who embraced him - and breathlessly awaited his next book.
Alas, the unalloyed adoration and allure of the glamorous high life of decadence and debauchery seems to have taken up so much of his time and blocked his long range thinking so that he has spent the intervening years not working on a novel but as a journalist. He has made up for his lack of novelistic output by increasing his intake of all manner of stimuli - including wine, women, recreational drugs and partying. He is invited to and gives the best parties in Rome, has the most beautiful women, knows all of the most fabulous and influential people and generally has his way with all and sundry he encounters.
As he literally and figuratively strolls through a picturesque Rome and down a hedonistic memory lane we are treated to a kaleidoscopic cast of characters, a cardinal obsessed with food and recipes, a stripper who stars in her father’s strip club, a wealthy socialite whom he has scorned and humiliated, a magician who can conjure a giraffe out of thin air, an ancient saintly nun who appears to suffer from narcolepsy, his editor, a nurturing and pragmatic dwarf, and a myriad of eccentric characters. As he revels in these memories he is suddenly brought down to earth by a surprise visit by the husband of his first love when he was eighteen years old - and possibly the only pure love he has had in a lifetime of lovers. He tells him that she has just died and there is a revelation which stops him dead in his tracks and causes him to re-assess everything he has held dear (or held loosely). It seems to strike him in his core - a place that has been successfully anesthetized by the life he has been leading and brings on a bout of soul searching which is both painful as well as redemptive. It gives both his character and the story a depth and humanity which has not been much in evidence prior to this. Yet another layer has been added to the richness of the film as he becomes aware of the pain and suffering of others and begins to experience a sense of his own mortality. His satisfied grin gives way to knitted brows and even unexpected bursts of tears.
Tony Servillo who is in nearly every frame has a face and way of moving that is endlessly marvelous to behold. His darkly ringed eyes suggest a more complex character than the suave dandy he portrays. His versatility in the hands of Sorrentino is inescapable when compared to the character of Giulio Andreotti in Il Divo. They are polar opposites including something remarkable he does with his neck. As Andreotti he has the body type of Henrry Kissinger with a jowly face that seems to sit directly on top of the shoulders of a stiff and bulky body. The cast of characters from Jep’s past are also wonderfully acted - giving what can only be called cameo performances - which are as well-crafted as a haiku.
The film has been interpreted as a metaphor for the present state of decline of the glorious, proud country of Italy in general and Rome in particular in the Berlusconi era. Anything set in contemporary Rome will inevitably reflect the contrast of the ancient and the modern. But there is now an iconic image which is used here to stunning effect - the half-submerged hulk of the Costa Concordia lying on its side off the Tuscan coast where it remained for two years like a beached whale before finally being removed. It is an image which speaks volumes and lends itself to any number of interpretations. This is also true of this film. It is a wonder - a delectable feast for the senses as well as food for thought. Not to be missed. The two and a half hours fly by.
Review by Belle McIntyre