Paolo Sorrentino starts off with a boom in the first scene of The Great Beauty, making you look down a cannon bore just before the charge explodes, and then begins the second by having you peer into the O of a woman’s mouth in mid-shout. Matched glimpses into two very loud, dark voids: one belonging to the daylight world of public gestures (a military ceremony at Rome’s Fontana dell’Acqua Paola) and the other to the nocturnal realm of semi-private revels (a feverishly crowded birthday party, held on an apartment terrace overlooking the Colosseum). Much music, ethereal or carnal, accompanies the elaborate scenes to which these two images belong. Many flights, lunges, glides and pokes of the camera in these sequences—an almost dialogue-free, thematic preamble to the narrative of The Great Beauty—reveal the magnificence and overpowering weight of Rome’s past and survey the casual surrealism and rich grotesquerie of its present.
Recollections of Fellini tumble into your mind. (They don’t fall by accident; they’re pushed.) You get a sense of having been in these overly energetic hullabaloos before, these outpourings from an essential emptiness that must keep itself erupting in a noisy show. Only at the end of the dual prologue does a quiet voice sound in the hubbub and the possibility of introspection assert itself amid the display. An individual steps forward from the magically oblivious throng, as if he is the middle term excluded by the day’s official rituals and the night’s social whirl. This is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), narrator and subject of The Great Beauty, who knows too well that he’s been living in a reminiscence of La Dolce Vita and seems to have accepted it with wry but weary resignation.
An affluent journalist who is on familiar terms with everyone in Rome’s high society—“I became the king of nightlife,” he recalls to himself in one scene, “with the power to make a party a failure”—Jep might almost be the Mastroianni figure of La Dolce Vita forty years on, except that Fellini’s young character wanted to write a novel and clearly never would, whereas Sorrentino’s middle-aged protagonist won early acclaim with a book titled The Human Apparatus but has never gotten around to writing another. He seems to enjoy hearing people urge him to try again. Why spoil the fun by giving them what they claim to want? Unfailingly urbane, Jep allows a little pleasure to play around his eyes whenever turning aside questions about a second novel. He knows it’s good form for a gentleman, while deprecating himself, to offer a glint of thanks for the flattery.
This juggler of nuances, who can keep a dozen knowing implications floating across his face, would be unthinkable if Jep were not being played by an actor with Servillo’s innate grace and sophistication. Perhaps best known for his role as an elegant businessman-gangster in Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, and for his remarkable impersonation, under thick makeup, of Giulio Andreotti in Sorrentino’s Il Divo, Servillo gives Jep a calm, light-footed gait (he sidles almost like a runway model) and a posture that, when in repose, suggests the draping across a chair of an excellent sport jacket. That said, Jep is emphatically not an empty suit of clothes. With long, sleek, gently drooping features that always look more canny than those of anyone around him—his intelligence reads as shrewd and manipulative in some roles, as disillusioned but essentially benevolent here—Servillo moves through The Great Beauty with the air of someone who long ago sized people up and found them wanting, himself most of all, but still likes to have the company.
Thanks to Servillo, there is warmth, sensibility and a sometimes challenging wit at the center of this Baroque palace of a movie—visually and dramatically, all swirling gestures and opulent materials—and yet his beautiful performance, by its very virtue, exposes the weakness in The Great Beauty. The problem is, Sorrentino loves Jep too much.
Eager to raise this profoundly frivolous hero above the crowd, Sorrentino surrounds him with straw figures to knock down: a brittle, self-righteous communist who makes her ample money in television (and is dispatched in entire paragraphs of expository monologue), a cardinal who devotes his spirit wholly to a litany of gourmet recipes. For the easiest targets of all, there are avant-garde artists—two of them. Jep effortlessly lays these foils low, or just as readily lifts them up to show his magnanimity. For the latter purpose, Sorrentino gives him a lovely but abased woman to soothe with kindness and introduce to a better line of clothing, and a fellow writer to counsel about the need for artistic self-confidence. (“If only Jep would follow his own advice,” you’re meant to think.) In acknowledgment of this latter proof of friendship, the writer says that Jep is the only worthwhile person in the movie’s entire society of highly cultured Romans, ages 40 through 70—an opinion with which Sorrentino obviously agrees.
Having been granted such approbation by his creator, Jep in effect seconds the judgment by practicing a mature self-acceptance; and so the audience feels only the mildest emotional tremors—shrugs, really—when mortality shakes his world. Soon after reaching the thought-provoking age of 65, Jep learns that the great love of his life has died. She had not spoken to him for decades. Now it turns out that all along, she (like Sorrentino) was utterly devoted to him. Out of this revelation trickles a plot of sorts, rippling placidly through the gorgeous turbulence of Sorrentino’s imagery, about Jep’s nocturnal wanderings and reminiscences, his forging of a new emotional bond with a woman (freshly encountered and lost too soon), his diffident half-step toward religious belief and, at last, his discovery that the vein of sadness runs a little deeper in him than he’d thought. So much movie; such small, subtle feelings.
The Great Beauty is La Dolce Vita recollected in tranquility—not a report from the front lines of social change, as Fellini’s film was in its time, but a meditation made for an era when people commonly doubt that society ever fundamentally changes at all. As if to serve a wised-up (or politically tired-out) audience, Sorrentino presents the partying class to which Jep belongs as if it had been in place for as long as Rome’s monuments.
In what is perhaps the movie’s key scene, Jep and his new woman friend abandon a party given by a collector of novelties (supposedly up-to-the-minute performance art and gestural abstraction) to take a fanciful tour through a darkened palace stocked with masterworks from epochs past. These, unlike the fripperies of contemporary art, are the lasting treasures, you’re meant to understand; and if they’re glimpsed only transiently, in the flicker of candles, it’s because the lives of the people looking at them are so fleeting.
This passing, partial, sweetly melancholic apprehension of an abiding magnificence is the great beauty of the title. I think it’s a little shabby of Sorrentino to pretend that only Jep (and of course you, sensitive ticket buyer) could be worthy of this vision. I would be lying, though, if I denied having enjoyed the tour and appreciated the flattery. Wanting to be just a little like Jep, I might say to Sorrentino, “No, I won’t hear of it. I’m just a plain person living in a workaday world. But all the same, just between us—thank you.”
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