The essence of a city, what makes it more than a group of buildings thrown together, is an elusive thing to capture, easy to perceive when you’re in the middle of all that hustle and bustle, but considerably more difficult to convey to somebody who has never been there.
The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s pointed satire of idle Eurotrash snobbery, exudes Rome’s old-world allure in every frame, so much so that watching as the filmmaker’s endlessly roving camera glides through a succession of decadent soirées and opulent dinners makes you feel as if you’ve hobnobbed in these social circles your entire life. It’s an intoxicating, languidly rendered city symphony with echoes of Fellini and Antonioni, and yet it isn’t quite the slavish love letter to these auteurs one would expect.
Our tour guide is journalist Jep Gambardella, played with insouciant irreverence by the great Toni Servillo (Gomorrah). As the movie opens, Jep is turning 65. It’s obvious he has no plans to dial down his festive, party-all-night lifestyle, and why should he? So what if it’s been 39 years since he came to town and he hasn’t written a single novel in the decades since “The Human Apparatus,” his first – and only – book took the country’s literary scene by storm? Decked out in splashy suits, he’s content to lose himself in the rhythmic thumps of a DJ’s spins, the hedonistic thrill of drunken revelers washing over him, lulling him into complete surrender. If Roman nightlife is a drug, Jep is its #1 user. What’s the Italian word for swag?
And yet … the momentous birthday appears to bring on something of an epiphany of sorts. Naaaah, not really. Introspection is for losers, a nuisance for a sharp-tongued scribe who takes delight in bursting all kinds of bubbles. Take, for instance, Talia Concept (Anita Kravos), the performance artist whose outdoor one-woman spectacle climaxes with her running toward what appears to be a stone wall, completely naked except for a white veil covering her head. (She has also painted her vagina bright red so it looks like the Soviet Union flag.) After a post-show one-on-one interview with Jep quickly heads south, his longtime editor Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), a little person who’s a dead ringer for Edna Mode, suggests a change of scenery. Jep scoffs at the idea. And then a stranger approaches him, tells him he was married to a woman he dated in his youth. A secret diary she kept reveals she never truly got over Jep, and it’s like a light switches inside the disaffected wordsmith. Sparsely inserted voiceover narration gives us a front-row seat to the ensuing existential journey.
Sorrentino and co-screenwriter Umberto Contarello are juggling many narrative balls here. The Great Beauty, or La grande bellezza, which I much prefer, isn’t just an atmospheric portrait of contemporary Rome, although its depiction of the city is vivid, transporting. It isn’t merely an ensemble piece that flits between the socialites Jep interacts with – and ruthlessly sizes up whenever necessary – like a party hostess would, although the lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-self-absorbed mosaic the filmmakers come up with recalls, not just La dolce vita-era Fellini, but Jean Renoir circa The Rules of the Game. And it isn’t just a nuanced character study, using magic realism to dig beneath Jep’s cynicism to find the restless artist within. All these seemingly disparate elements should not coalesce, but they do, blissfully so.
Jep’s checkered track record with women – “I’m not a misogynist, I’m a misanthropist,” he quips – is reminiscent of 8½. Flashbacks that show Jep as a smitten young man do, indeed, have an Antonioni-esque whiff about them. But Sorrentino distills the work of these filmmakers and turns them into something distinctly his own. In this sense, La grande bellezza is not far removed from what Todd Haynes did to Douglas Sirk’s weepies in Far from Heaven. It takes a mode of filmmaking that might across as quaint to contemporary eyes and it transforms it into something indelibly sui generis. I’m not revealing whether Signore Gambardella ultimately finds what he’s looking for, but I can say with certainty that in the process he gives us one of the juiciest, most satisfying experiences I’ve had at the movies this year.
The Great Beauty continues its run for a second weekend at Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com) and the Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com). Art Basel peeps, do not miss this film.