The Great Beauty is a movie packed to the brim with ideas, fragmented and filled to fruition by director Paolo Sorrentino, that unravel themselves over the film’s patiently chaotic 150-minute runtime. It’s restlessly unperturbed with tying up its loose ends but nevertheless offers up a gorgeously panoptic view of Rome and the excesses of modern Italy. It is a highly symbolic film pulled together by its main character Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), the aging playboy nucleus of this Roman fever dream whose love/hate nostalgia for the Eternal City sparks a decadent crisis of the mind, body, and spirit. Sorrentino audaciously charges through these weighty themes while making what is undoubtedly his biggest and best film yet, and boldly asserts himself as the cinematic successor to the best and brightest—or darkest, however you like to look at it—Italian masters of existential angst that have come before him. As the heir apparent to heavyweights like Fellini and Antonioni, Sorrentino has some imposing shoes to fill, but he manages to do so with the mad confidence of someone set in his irreverently anarchic ways.
Sorrentino’s self-assurance—not to mention the movie itself—rests easily on the sly stability of Servillo’s performance as Jep, an impeccably-dressed and infamous journalist whose only real literary claim to fame was a mediocre novelette written in his twenties or thirties called “The Human Apparatus.” His deviously charming and permanent Cheshire Cat smile is the most immediate clue to his character’s unspoken status at the top of Rome’s indolent intelligentsia, but also the biggest indication of his own hopelessly hollow lifestyle as seen through the film’s unfurling narrative vignettes. He is a man lamenting the present and obsessed by the past, but doesn’t really have anything substantial to do about either.
Servillo is to Sorrentino as Mastroianni was to Fellini, and even without knowing the two had made four films together you can tell both Sorrentino and Servillo have such a comfortable shorthand based on the free-flowing nature of the performance. It’s almost as if amongst all the bacchanalia and banter the director kept the camera rolling most of the time just to see what Servillo could do and it just so happened to turn out as a deeply sincere look at a man coming to terms with his not-so-pretty place in the world.
Taking a cue from Fellini’s 8½, dozens of other side characters come and go throughout The Great Beauty—the best of the bunch is probably Jep’s bumbling colleague Romano (Carlo Verdone) who is tied up in a dejected relationship with a much younger woman while also trying to get his one-man play off the ground—yet they all swirl around Jep in a Dante-esque flurry that mainly serves to best highlight his personal crisis. Hallucinations of a tryst with his first love, a kind of “Proust’s madeleine” moment of involuntary memory brought on by the unfortunate news from her unloved husband of her death, soon surge in his head and the relived event acts as a catalyst of sorts for the narrative’s fascinating modernist fragmentation.
Servillo strolls through the superbly photographed streets of Rome thanks to Sorrentino’s longtime director of photography Luca Bigazzi, whose fluidly moving Steadicam briskly captures the splendor of each character’s surroundings. It is not only Bigazzi’s best work, but also his most perceptively in-tune with a film’s themes. My favorite example of this is an expertly ironic shot that slowly pushes into Jep lounging on a hammock while drinking a cocktail with a voiceover bemoaning the corrupt present state of Italy that then gradually pulls back to reveal that his lavish apartment is directly across from the crumbling Roman Coliseum. It’s a shining moment of everything that the film is striving for working in tandem to make its absurd hilarity that much better.
The other pillar the film stands on is its expressive use of music. Sorrentino has shown an uncanny ability to experiment with the way music functions in his films, from the use of an electronic score in 2004’s The Consequences of Love to music from David Byrne and Will Oldham in 2011’s This Must Be the Place, but with The Great Beauty he manages to synthesize the disparate elements of the music into an acutely important part of its very composition. In an interview I did with the director he said the film’s mix of classical music and modern EDM reflected the intrinsic dichotomy between the sacred and profane parts of Italian culture, which not only works well in a specific sense but also informs the larger aesthetics of the movie itself. The characters’ lazy behavior is as disposable and reprehensible as the Pop music that seems to be the only thing that causes them to get out of their obviously-way-too-expensive chairs and move around. It then takes the non-diagetic classical music for the audience to recognize a sometimes-spooky and ageless sense of historicism that off-sets Jep and his group.
It’s a tough film to describe because it clearly tries to avoid easy explanation, but not in an overtly vague sense that will leave the audience clueless. All of what is there needs to be there, it’s just undoubtedly a lot to take in on its own and in its influences. The film’s atmospherics seems to be partly intentional nods to something like Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, and its eccentricities veer close to general Lynchian weirdness. Throw the previously mentioned Fellini and Antonioni signifiers in there and you’ve got yourself a pretty killer party. Despite the potential artistic overdose, the film always keeps you entranced and engaged.
Critics of The Great Beauty will find it overstuffed and meandering, and will maybe even say that the subject matter of idle Europeans ostensibly sitting around and whining about unfulfilled creativity is a cliché, yet these detractors are the types of people who are unwilling to try to engage in films deeper than what they are simply watching onscreen. Perhaps they’re scared off by Sorrentino’s ambition because it seeks to piggyback on lofty precedents, but if you are willing to let Sorrentino and Servillo lead you through this weird and lush epic then it will undoubtedly leave quite a visceral impression. Even though some of the immediate elegance is lost in translation from the Italian “La grande belezza” to the English “The Great Beauty,” I couldn’t think of a more appropriate title for the film. It is unquestionably beautiful, but most importantly it is also thoroughly great.