Watching Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is a dizzying, largely fulfilling experience. The film follows ageing writer and socialite Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) – once a celebrated novelist in his 20s, now a jaded arts columnist for a newspaper – as he reflects on his life in Rome, his career and the woman who became his first love, among other topics. It’s also a love letter to the city by Sorrentino, who fashions – with the considerable help of regular DP Luca Bigazzi – a quite spectacular string of shots that show off Roman architectural treasures new and old. Fellini is the touchstone for obvious reasons: The Great Beauty is partly concerned with one man’s lifetime and the way that the city has changed during it, as per Roma, with which it also shares a keen sense of the Catholic Church’s influence over society (sex, culture, etc.); and with its breathless depiction of the high life you’re duty bound to think of La Dolce Vita, the film that has served as a template for Italian nighttime abandon and architectural celebration for over 50 years.
There’s too much to take in during one sitting. Sorrentino opens with a bang (opera, Roman ruins, collapsing Japanese tourists) before moving swiftly on to what turns out to be a typically-wild party for Gambardella’s 65th birthday: on a rooftop terrace people burst out of giant cakes, drug-fuelled septaguenerians dance to poppier techno and electro tracks and a woman screams directly into the camera (I feared, for a brief moment, that it may all be going a little bit Baz Luhrmann). Such social gatherings take place repeatedly during the film, along with plenty of quieter evenings on Gambardella’s own terrace, in which intellectual chatter gradually gives way to bitter barbs. Yet the birthday party is the big one, and also a catalyst for self-reflection (mainly for Gambardella, but also friend Romano, played by Carlo Verdone), so once it’s over the film duly settles down in line with the main character’s introspection.
That’s not to say the rest of The Great Beauty is any less spectacular than the first fifteen minutes, it’s just a very different kind of spectacular. Gambardella wanders the streets, attends parties, watches performance art pieces, hosts friends, dines with colleagues, and each seductive scene is beautifully coloured, in a setting worth ogling, while the images are pin sharp, as if lifted directly from a fashion shoot or weekend broadsheet magazine. Lele Marchitelli’s score drifts in and out, and a suitably grandiose collection of choral pieces and swelling, classical numbers demand as much attention as the imagery. Sorrentino is celebrating the lifestyle, highlighting its glamour and, indeed, its great beauty, but he also shows its emptiness: ultimately Jep is unhappy, as is Romano, and both end up looking back to their earlier days for traces of innocent contentment (where Jep ponders his first love, with flashbacks serving as an homage to Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Romano eventually decides to reject Rome for the hometown he left 60 years earlier). It’s interesting to note that Jep’s editor, played by Giovanna Vignola, attributes her own happiness to her ability to look at the world through child’s eyes (a joke based on her diminutive stature, but pertinent nonetheless). Jep’s answer to his late-life ennui is a new romance with stripper Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), and her surface happiness also masks inner doubts, the illusion shattered when she suddenly commits suicide. (Sorrentino, ever playful, prefaces this incident with both a long funeral sequence and another scene in which the camera lingers over Ramona’s sleeping body, suggesting she is dead, refusing to cut away until she finally stirs; shortly thereafter her suicide is dealt with matter-of-factly in less than 30 seconds…blink and you’ll miss it.)
The Great Beauty invites two questions: first whether – as I have seen one internet commentator suggest – the film is ‘all fur coat and no knickers’, and secondly whether there is a rather unfortunate streak of sexism peppering the film, given that it contains a lot more female nudity than male and a main character who often displays a rather withering view of many of the women in his life. You could argue that Jep is a misogynist – witness his remorseless belittling of a female writer at a dinner party, which is over the top even if the recipient is full of herself – and that Sorrentino colludes with his character’s sexism with an unrestrained glee, but the film does also wryly send up the male gaze at times, and in particular the idea of wealthy, powerful, older men leering over younger women’s bodies. On the other point, regarding the question of style over substance, I certainly wasn’t angered by The Great Beauty‘s focus on Rome’s grand opulence, or the lifestyle of its main character, and I think it’s a little churlish to suggest that the film isn’t remotely edifying. Sorrentino has his cake and eats it, repeatedly pointing out that happiness lies beyond the glitz and the glamour while remaining enthralled by it. He does this through the behaviour and interests of his incidental characters as much as his protagonist’s jaded musings: a child artist prodigy is happier when she is left to play with her peers than when she is forced to perform for an adult audience, for example, while a Cardinal who ignores questions of faith and is instead far more interested in discussing a much more earthly matter, namely food, is similarly content, even if he is depicted as an oddball buffoon. These are minor players in this grand, Roman stage play, but they help to colour the city every bit as much as the slow pans along the Tiber or the graceful crane shots of the Colosseum at night, and fit with the film’s sudden lurches from loud exuberance to introverted introspection.
I also enjoyed the brief appearances by a 104-year-old nun and her smarmy aide, a performance artist who runs into a brick wall in the name of art, a corrupt neighbour (a Berlusconi reference?) who literally and figuratively looks down on Jep, the aforementioned editor and the snooty actress Romano fusses over throughout. These are all memorable characters (and cariacatures), and watching Jep interact with them – whether on the street or in the middle of some hilarious eurotrash party – is fine fun in itself. I guess you could call it frothy, but it’s a gloriously-staged assault on the senses and Gambardella’s negotiation of late-life unhappiness was just as intriguing for me as his constant marvelling at the numerous strange sights in this vision of the Eternal City.
Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino.
Written by: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello.
Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Giovanna Vignola, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi.
Cinematography: Luca Bigazzi.
Editing: Cristiano Travaglioli.
Music: Lele Marchitelli.
Running Time: 138 minutes.