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.”

* * *

If Alexander Sokurov were not an indisputably great filmmaker, I would feel no need to complain about his version of Faust. (It won the top prize at the 2011 Venice Film Festival and is now receiving a belated theatrical release in the United States, starting in New York City at Film Forum.) Guessing that this fancy mess would pass quickly into oblivion, as would be likely if it had come from a lesser artist, I might have said only that Faust bursts with astonishingly strange, beautiful, often disquieting sounds and images, deployed without the coherence of a convincing movie.

Sokurov being Sokurov, though, I must assume that anything he does will remain a lasting source of interest and influence, especially when the film in question is labeled as the final work in a greatly admired series about “men of power”: Moloch (on Hitler), Taurus (Lenin) and The Sun (Hirohito). So I can’t be content to burble about the surface effects of Faust, or use the Silly Putty method of critical exegesis to twist it into a justifiable shape. Instead I have to say: Faust is shameful.

To explain why, let me first ask what Sokurov and his screenwriter, Yuri Arabov, might mean when they claim their Faust is based on Goethe’s play. Granted, the language on the soundtrack is German, as is the small-town setting, which appropriately belongs to both the medieval period and the Enlightenment. Here, a middle-aged seeker of knowledge (Johannes Zeiler) falls in, as expected, with a creepy, uncanny wise guy (Anton Adasinsky), to the eventual disadvantage of a pretty local girl (Isolda Dychauk). But few of the film’s events, almost none of its characterizations and only a smattering of its thematic preoccupations match Goethe’s. Even if you would want Sokurov to let loose his imagination in adapting a source—as he did, for example, with Save and Protect, his brilliant response to Madame Bovary—there is no apparent reason to ascribe the present film’s inspiration specifically to Goethe, rather than to the Faust legend in general.

If you look, though, at the long, crucial soliloquy that starts around line 600 of Goethe’s text, you will find metaphor after metaphor that the film makes literal: a heavenly mirror, a stinging nettle, a man stretched upon a rack, a father’s useless scientific instruments. In the film, these figures of speech, torn from their places in the flow of Goethe’s thought, are made into real objects, tossed randomly into various scenes almost as if Sokurov and Arabov had plundered an ancestor’s trunk and scattered the contents around the attic.

But it’s worse than that. Sokurov and Arabov have devised a discursive connection of their own among the metaphors by recasting Goethe’s Mephistopheles as a moneylending Jew. Relatively few commentators on this Faust have talked about this aspect of the film—I gratefully acknowledge Tony Rayns, writing in Sight and Sound, and more recently James Quandt in Artforum for being among the exceptions—perhaps because they don’t want to think that Sokurov would do something so awful, or because the word “Jew” never comes up. There can be only one identification, though, given centuries of stereotyping, for a scheming, smelly, slippery, physically ungainly, red-haired usurer with a big hooked nose. (My review of Internet photos of Anton Adasinsky, although not conclusive, persuades me that to play the role, he made up his normally prominent, bumpy nose to give it a downward turn.) To Sokurov and Arabov, it is through the unholy wiles of the Jew that Heinrich Faust—in their telling, a proud, embittered scientist, strictly materialist in his beliefs—gains his measure of power.

You can, if you choose, ignore the blatant appeal to race hate. Alternatively, if you’re clever, you might try to thematize it, pretending that Sokurov and Arabov are reflecting on the origins of Nazi ideology in German Romanticism. That argument, requiring a level of abstraction so high as to approach meaninglessness, would replace an insult to a people with a slur on Goethe, a disciple of Spinoza and admirer of Felix Mendelssohn, whose first great gesture in Faust was to Judaize the story by merging it with the Book of Job. Goethe, too, had his tinge of anti-Semitism, but he makes a very poor forerunner of Richard Wagner. Or you might contextualize this unsavory decision within current Russian cultural politics, remarking, for what it’s worth, that Sokurov got funding for Faust after taking a meeting with Vladimir Putin, and that Arabov is reportedly at work on a film about Tchaikovsky that will gratify official prejudice by denying the composer’s homosexuality.

I would prefer to deal with the problem by setting this Faust against a far more conventional and also far better film: Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s recently released Aftermath. A fiction based loosely on the events documented by Jan Gross in his book Neighbors, the film tells the story of a young farmer in Poland around the year 2001 and his quixotic efforts to recover Jewish gravestones that have been used for paving a road. Of course, the ingenuously moral and very stubborn fellow (strongly played by Maciej Stuhr) is actually digging up something deeper and worse, as his older brother (Ireneusz Czop), visiting from Chicago, slowly comes to understand.

A lot of people in Poland objected to Aftermath when it was released there last year. Pasikowski knew they would—but he made the film anyway as an act of conscience, writing and directing it without a trace of ego but with plenty of narrative efficiency and emotional punch. He seems to have felt that he, like his farmer character, owed it to the dead to speak the truth.

That’s an artist.