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.