The Great Beauty is director Paolo Sorrentino’s ode to finding the beauty in one’s own existence. The production reunites the filmmaker with his frequent lead star (and muse) Toni Servillo in a character study. We’re presented a contemporary version of Rome through the eyes of Jep Gambardella. The aging bon vivant once wrote a masterpiece novel in his twenties. However he hasn’t written anything of note in the 40 years since. Now the well dressed playboy has retired to infrequently writing cultural columns, and is living the good life in an incredible apartment overlooking the Coliseum.
There is a euphoria to the party scenes that is captivating. Rome is a stunning backdrop——the cathedrals, the museums, the amphitheaters. I’d almost defy any filmmaker to make an ugly movie here. These stately monuments of the old world contrast with the vacuous people of the new world. Jep is cultured, intelligent and parties until dawn nearly every night with the country’s well-to-do. Their lives an intoxicating mix of celebration, superficiality and emptiness. We first meet Jep as he’s celebrating his 65th birthday. He experiences reality as an observer lamenting his current situation. He’s searching for that intangible revelation. The script contrasts Jep’s despondency with the enthusiastic zeal of party revelers. The opening soirée is a dazzling mélange of music and merriment. It presents an energy that is palpable.
There’s little substance, only style to this beautiful looking film. I suppose that’s the point. It’s not about narrative thrust, but more of a feeling, a vibe. The plot is just a running account of what Jep sees and says during his often surreal urban wanderings. He surrounds himself with various oddballs: a nun with two crooked teeth, a clever stripper, a self-described “dwarf”. We see a young girl unhappily creating avant-garde paintings by throwing herself at a canvas in front of an audience. Through wisecracks and cynical smirks, Jep breezes through life. “The best people in Rome are the tourists” he offers casually. You’re meant to hang on his every word, but he’s a bit self involved. Occasionally he says something great. He tells a pretentious performance artist exactly what he thinks of her work and it’s refreshingly pragmatic. Unfortunately his lamentations put him in a melancholy state. Of course he doesn’t have any real problems and that lack of conflict tugs at your brain throughout the 142 minutes. For the most part, The Great Beauty is more of an art house feast for the eyes than the mind.