Wild set-pieces and rueful observations are the stock in trade of this Italian film by one of the modern masters of cinema, Paolo Sorrentino. Heretofore Sorrentino has been best-known on these shores for his historical drama Il Divo and the English-language This Must Be the Place, which stars Sean Penn as a retired goth rocker who is reborn as a Nazi hunter during a classic road trip through the American West. In The Great Beauty, Sorrentino is working in a mode that resembles that of Federico Fellini, whose La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 set the tone for the self-reflexive cinema of the Italian artist, so much so that you can virtually picture the role of this film’s central character, Italian journalist Jep Gambardella (Servillo), being played by Fellini alter ego Marcello Mastroianni.
When we first come upon Jep, he’s standing slightly aloof from the crowd, with the first of many cigarettes to come perched between his lips. He’s swaying slightly to the music as sybaritic revelers dance vigorously in the foreground. The celebration is in honor of Jep’s 65th birthday, and the character begins an ongoing monologue addressed to those of us in the theatre. As he turns 65, he is overcome with a new concern about wasting time. He reveals that he came to Rome when he was 26, and 40 years ago published a novel called The Human Apparatus, for which he was heralded as one of the premier voices of his era. He became the “king of the socialites,” and spent every dusk till dawn among the city’s hedonists, indulging in every pleasure the ancient capital had to offer. These days he works as a journalist who reviews avant-garde artworks whose attitudes appear even more cynical and jaded than his. Jep is a born observer, as he explains to us at length.
Eventwise, little occurs in this perambulatory movie. The husband of one of his youthful paramours visits him to reveal that the woman has died. The past and present swirl in his consciousness. We gain a sense of modern Rome along with a sense of the man; the mood is sardonic, overarching, and of a piece with the quote from Céline that prefaces the film. Indeed, it must be said that Jep’s musings and ambulatory observations overstay their welcome a little bit in this film that goes well past the two-hour mark. Yet even in its disassociation, The Great Beauty ingratiates itself as a witty and compelling companion – much like Jep Gambardella.
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